Halmoni Soon-Ja’s impromptu song with David tells you more about the movie that I could— “Minari, Minari, wonderful, wonderful.”
One of the ever-popular writing advices goes something like “show, don’t tell.” Ironically enough, movies which can show, instead decide to tell; losing something precious between the melodrama of action and the infatuation with dialogue. Minari is different. Right from the first scene, we realise that here, in this domestic space of a house on wheels that cannot move, the lesser told story of millions of immigrant Americans and their children is being told without the movie telling us anything at all. Is it a token of the American Dream? Is it symbolic of the hardships of life and communal values, a carving of a distinct American identity? None of that matters in Minari. The movie is about a family somewhere in rural Southern America trying to find their Eden with a hospital nearby and in need of a babysitter. Actually, it isn’t about them. They just exist in it. You can decide what the movie is about all by yourself.
Minari is threaded with Lee Isaac Chung’s memories from childhood (he mentions in his Fresh Air interview). Perhaps it is this specificity that makes it so appealing – Roger Ebert once remarked that, “The more specific a film is, the more universal, because the more it understands individual characters, the more it applies to everyone.”
Minari tells the story of the Yi family, Jacob (Steven Yeun) and Monica (Han Ye-ri), the lovey-dovey parents who have moved from Korea to start a new life but have painfully grown apart, with their children Anne (Noel Cho) and David (Alan. S. Kim), the latter who has a heart that might stop anytime, and the former who remembers more of Korea and reminds us of our own older siblings. The grandmother is special: Youn Yuh-jung won an Oscar for her spectacular role: she perfectly captures the-grandma-that-doesn’t-bake-cookies-but-teaches you-how-to-gamble character accompanied with her Hanyak and her easy-going temperament (don’t make your grandma drink your pee). Paul (Will Patton), the self-volunteering helper on the farm is distinct in his own right, who is he? We know he fought in the Korean War, but why does he carry a cross on his back every Sunday, why does he give them his life and soul when he is dirt poor and shits in a bucket?
Minari doesn’t answer anything. I don’t think we are supposed to find answers either. Like people we meet for a second in real lives, whose stories we do not know from the beginning to the end, Minari shows us a moment in Yi family’s entire life and we must make do with that. An hour and fifty-five minutes of feeling as if we heard the life of someone bold and colourful on a train to somewhere. Even biographies are fractional.
The soundtrack of Minari carries us through. Interceded with the ethereal melodies that incite nervous excitement, are the lazy sounds of everyday life – the pump of a blood pressure monitor, the multiple sighs and the thunk of mugs, the shuffle of blankets. They aren’t background noises, they have a presence of their own. The Rain Song and the Wind Song, performed by Han Ye-Ri, had already made it to my playlist by the time the credits rolled. Their composition itself seems emblematic of the ubiquity of the Asian-American-ness of the film: she recorded bits in Korea, and it merged with the sounds in USA. “The lyrics are also very much connected to the land and the family’s spiritual connection to the land,” Emile Mosseri says.
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Nothing in the movie is excess. Everything adds to the experience of it. The sync of the music with nature; the foretelling of the metaphorical storm to come in the grey clouds Paul points to, and the little hope they would have all through in the small gap between those grey clouds; Jacob’s lonely back as he refuses his family for the first time to go to the garden turned-farm; and the physically unintelligible but emotionally comprehensible flits of emotions that dance across his face and Monica’s as they hold the screen in their separation. There are no extra tears in Minari, incredibly poignant of the way Asian parents often behave.
Consider the shot of the incinerator’s smoke at the hatchery: male chicks are discarded because they do not lay eggs and taste bad, following which Jacob pointedly tells his son to be useful. The second time we see the same shot is right after Jacob strains himself sick, drops the basket of chicks and is told forebodingly, “if they are injured, we throw them away.” He wants to be a patriarch, show his kids he can succeed; he is relentlessly uneasy about his image as a father who he considers must bear the responsibility of the family. He does not want to be the chick.
The family curiously functions in the way patriarchal tradition dictates – Monica and Soo-Ja, the mother figures, stay with the children the most; but at the same time, there is no character in Minari that fits an archetype. Jacob is an emotionally available father who just happens to get lost in his obsession, even Johnnie’s father (Scott Haze) sits with his son (Jacob Wade) and his new Korean friend and enjoys breakfast (although a little morose in his talk). Monica too, is a working mother who works to get better at her job, and it matters in the movie just as much as her setting up a swing for the kids. Both Monica and Jacob fight, but they enjoy moments of shared intimacy too. This is the generation that grew up ‘traditionally’ and it reflects, but this is also the generation that dealt with the shortcomings of such demarcations.
There is no complimentary “wokeness” for extra points, people are racist, the kids make racist comments, but both David and Anne shut them up too. Minari isn’t trying to give us a comprehensive guide on Asian hate. It paints real experiences and the influence growing up in a place hostile to your culture can have: consider the way David displays a certain detestation, “Grandma smells like Korea!” he says when he has never been there and there isn’t any “Korean smell” at all. As an example closer home, let us remember the way so many among us hated our brown bodies as Indians when they were kids because of the impact of colourism born out of racism. With the growing hate against Asians in the light of the recent pandemic (Stop AAPI Hate recorded 3, 795 incidents of hate between March 19, 2020 and February 28, 2021), we wonder what will these Asian children think of themselves growing up?
The titular plant becomes a nod to the class disparity and struggles that ensue the ones at the lower end. “Minari is truly the best. It grows anywhere, like weeds. So anyone can pick and eat it. Rich or poor, anyone can enjoy it and be healthy,” Soon-ja remarks.
The family enjoys Minari when they are richer, when they are poorer, in sickness and in health; even when we feel like Monica and Jacob both come from different class backgrounds, here they are, eating Minari together. Chung himself says: “I started to see a lot of those connections—to immigration itself, and to the stories of the people who came over and planted themselves in the worst soils and started to thrive and grow.” It is resilient, they are resilient. They will survive. They will be happy. They won’t have it any other way.
What attracted me the most to Minari, is not the brilliant execution of the “deeper message” and “overarching themes,” but the way it takes a remarkably sad story of a family losing everything, and the retelling of the same in an unexpected way altogether. Halmoni’s stroke is a sad affair, and so is the fire, but they are both treated as everyday happenings: peculiarly, Soon-ja gets the stroke right after she promises she won’t let David die, and the fire is the first time Jacob ever calls Monica ‘Honey’ and that night is the only time they sleep on the floor together as a family.
When I watched Minari, I smiled, I laughed, and I cried and never once did I hit forward. It has no right to make me feel as it did, but it did. And I am thankful that I watched it. It is humourous. It is melancholic, too. It is bittersweet. All because it is relatable in an inexplicable way.
Featured image source: IMDB