Saturday May 15, 2021
Movie Review: Minari (2020)
Near the end of Lee Isaac Chung’s “Minari,” Jacob and Monica Yi (Steven Yuen of “Burning,” Han Yi-ri), two Koreans trying to make a go of it in the America South of the 1980s, get a bit of good news on a 108-degree day. Actually two good bits of news: 1) they’re told their son David’s heart murmur is healing itself; and 2) Jacob finds a buyer in Oklahoma for the Korean vegetables he’s been growing for most of the movie. Maybe the family won’t have to split up after all.
But on the way back to the car, Monica pulls off and into the shade and Jacob follows. She’s religious, he’s scientific, and she doesn’t like that money somehow is making everything right. “Things might be fine now but I don’t think they will stay that way,” she says. Then she says this:
That was my feeling throughout much of “Minari.” I knew something bad was going to happen and I had trouble bearing it.
It’s odd that I felt this way. “Minari” is a gentle, slice-of-life movie about a couple whose immigrant job is determining the gender of baby chickens for the poultry industry—or “sexing chicks.” Jacob is excellent at this, Monica less so, but he has dreams and buys land in Arkansas to grow Korean vegetables to sell to Korean markets for mostly Korean customers. As the opening credits roll, they’re driving there—he’s in a van in front, she’s following in a car with the kids—and, via the rearview mirror, we can see the worry in her eyes grow as they get more and more off the beaten path. Where are we living again? He obviously hasn’t shared his dream with his wife. So right away there’s conflict. And worry over the boy. “Don’t run,” they keep telling him, even when he’s outdoors. Later, they drop the news (to us) about the heart murmur.
I guess I was anxious because stories about people risking it all for their dream usually don’t end well—particularly in indie movies—and farming is particularly fraught. A local diviner tries to sell Jacob his services, but Jacob finds an underground water source on his own. The he hires a local, Paul (Will Patton), to help till the field. Paul is a Korean War vet, talkative, and religious. Extremely so. One Sunday, returning from church, they see him carrying a huge cross along a dirt path, atoning for his (or our) sins. One worries about the harm he might do, but for all his eccentricities he’s a sweet-natured man. One worries about Southern racism, too, but the people are mostly inviting. One boy, a contemporary of David (Alan Kim), asks why he has such a flat face. That’s about it.
Written and directed by Chung, “Minari’ is based on his childhood, so much of the movie is through the eyes of David. Apparently Chung originally wanted to adapt Willa Cather’s “My Antonia,” a lyrical bildungsroman set in the Great Plains in the latter 19th century, but the Cather estate wasn’t interested in adaptations. So he adapted his own life.
As the parents get pulled in the direction of the hatchery (where they earn money) and the farm (which bleeds it), they bring in Monica’s mother, Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung), from Korea, to look after the kids. For some reason she’s supposed to share a bedroom with David rather than his sister, Anne (Noel Kate Cho), and David resents it—and her. She’s not your traditional grandmother—watching WWF wrestling, marveling at the bodies of the men, and generally saying the quiet things out loud. When he wets the bed, she says his penis is broken. She drinks his favorite drink, Mountain Dew, and one day swaps his urine for it. She forgives him. She thinks he’s not as fragile as his parents do, telling him how strong he is, and they go for walks together. In the shaded woods next to a creek, she plants a Korean vegetable, minari, which she says grows anywhere—like weeds.
Meanwhile, Jacob’s well literally runs dry, and he goes stiff with exhaustion searching in vain for another. Eventually he has to buy water from the county. Then when the vegetables are ready, his buyer in Dallas backs out, going with a conglomerate in California. Then the grandmother has a stroke. She survives, but her speech is slurred, her body movements jerky.
And all the while I felt: I know this won’t end well and I can’t bear it.
When things fall apart
But it doesn’t end poorly. Jacob finds a potential buyer in Oklahoma, and on that blistering hot day, husband and wife take the kids to make a sale. It works, but Monica is not happy. She’s become more religious, is growing distant from her husband, wants to move mom and the kids back to California. And in the heady afterglow of the sale, she pulls her husband into the shade to have a talk. She not only says the line about things not ending well, she says this:
We can live together when things are good, but when they’re not we fall apart?
To her, that means their relationship isn’t real, but it turns out she has things backwards. Back home, by herself, Soon-ja is trying to help around the house. She even tries to burn some refuse in their burner in the yard, but some items fall out, setting the grass on fire, then the shed where the vegetables are kept, and the family comes home to a conflagration. Jacob and Monica run into the barn, trying to save the vegetables, but the smoke overwhelms them and they wind up merely saving each other. Meanwhile, Grandma wanders down the lane by herself, unable to deal with the disaster she's caused, but the kids run after her and bring her back.
Bit by bit, the family recovers. Jacob tries farming again, this time with the diviner, and David shows him the minari that his mother-in-law planted, which has flourished in the shaded woods. The family stays together. That’s why it’s the opposite of what Monica said. When things were good, she was ready to leave. It took things falling apart to strengthen their bonds.
Is the Yi family the minari? Growing in the new American soil like weeds? Or is the minari a metaphor for some aspect of life? I think of the John Lennon line: Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans. The well-tended Korean vegetables are the other plans, the ignored minari is life happening. One day you turn around and, wow, look at what's grown.