“Ask yourself before you pee, ‘Is this a dream? Is this a dream?'”
This advice, offered by Monica (Yeri Han) to her seven-year-old son David (Alan Kim) as a strategy to help him stop wetting the bed, captures something of the spirit of Minari. For, set in the rural Arkansas of the 1980s to which Monica’s husband Jacob (Steven Yeun) has brought his family in the hope of starting his own farming business, Minari is very much concerned with dreams, especially those of the American variety – yet it at times almost literally takes the piss out of this grand narrative arc with all manner of human frailties and foibles.
The film tracks Jacob’s struggles to find a reliable water source for his first crop, his growing friendship with local farm hand – and religious zealot – Paul (Will Patton), and the breakdown of his already fragile relationship with Monica under numerous pressures. Yet as the bickering couple try to escape a life of hired chicken sexing (begun in California, and continuing at least part-time in Arkansas), and to build a better legacy for David and his older sister Anne (Noel Kate Cho), the film’s focus is on both this younger generation, and on little David’s evolving connection to Monica’s eccentric old mother Soonja (Youn Yuh-jung).
Over from her home in Korea effectively to serve as childminder to the sickly David, swearing, snoring Soonja first appears to the little boy (who was born in Amerca) as an ogre of otherness, bringing with her strange smells and flavours from a foreign land. As David’s attitude towards his grandmother gradually shifts from initial hostility to alliance and love, we are also witnessing how this heartsick child, caught (along with the rest of his family) between two nations, negotiates his dual identity and reconciles himself to his heritage as much as to his future. Given that writer/director Lee Isaac Chung himself grew up in rural Arkansas, and would have been about David’s age in the Eighties when the film’s narrative takes place, it is difficult to resist regarding Minari as a semi-autobiographical origins story. Its particular blend of nostalgia may combine the syrupy sweetness of Mountain Dew with the bitterness of Korean herbal remedies, but the very existence of Chung’s film suggests that things will turn out alright in the end.
Named for a variety of East Asian water dropwort, seeds of which Soonja has brought with her to sow near her new home, Minari is preoccupied with the transplantation of tastes between one culture and another. Jacob may be committed to growing crops of typical Korean vegetables strictly for the growing migrant population fleeing Korea’s military dictatorship for America, but he will also learn, as Pete puts it, to “grow ’em the Arkansas way”, and that kimchi can appeal even to the locals. One of the film’s notable peculiarities, though, is its unstinting generosity towards the white American characters. It might be expected that a family of Korean émigrés in a south central state of Reagan’s America would attract at least some xenophobia and bigotry, but in fact everyone whom they encounter is friendly and welcoming, and the worst tensions that they face come not from without but from within.
Minari might even be a little too nice, lacking the sort of angry energy that can really motor a melodrama. One scene near the end that evokes Lee Chang-dong’s Burning (2018) – also featuring Steven Yeun – serves mostly to highlight the relative lack of any vicious bite here. Yet if it never fully grips as a saga, it certainly offers a good-natured portrait of the Korean diaspora (from the Greek for ‘a scattering of seeds’): strangers in a strange land, slowly putting down their own roots.
© Anton Bitel