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▶ Minari is released on VOD in the UK on 2 April.
“Never pay for anything you can get for free,” Korean immigrant Jacob Yi (Steven Yeun) tells his son David (Alan Kim) after choosing where to dig a well on their farm in early 1980s rural Arkansas. It’s the kind of fatherly advice that’s familiar to many, but for children of immigrants like David, it carries a distinctive dimension: your parents’ thriftiness is a point of pride, a sign that they have outsmarted the system.
Yet Lee Isaac Chung’s acutely observed family drama Minari doesn’t dwell on this moment, or spell out its deeper resonances for a white audience – rather than exploring the arduous process of assimilation, the trauma of racism or a feeling of not belonging, the film’s narrative focuses on its wholly believable characters’ desires and their conflicts with each other.
Lee’s film draws heavily on his own family’s experience, and follows Jacob, an immigrant from rural Korea, as he uproots his family from their home in California to start a farm in small-town Arkansas. (As Jacob tells his son, with 30,000 Koreans moving to the US every year, he envisions a booming market for Korean vegetables.)
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Jacob’s wife Monica (Yeri Han), a city girl, dislikes the provincial, rustic conditions of their new life, and is often openly contemptuous about the sacrifices required to live out Jacob’s dream – leading to marital tension picked up on by the couple’s observant daughter, Anne (Noel Kate Cho). Monica’s mother Soonja (veteran actress Youn Yuh-jung) soon arrives from Korea to help out, but is initially rejected by David – he doesn’t regard her as a real grandmother because she watches wrestling and loves to play cards rather than bake cookies. Later, she will twice unintentionally compound the family’s burdens further. Though these tragedies reflect the cruel happenstance of life, they unfold as part of a carefully crafted narrative, something of a departure from Lee’s previous, looser films Munyurangabo (2007) and Abigail Harm (2012), which had been built from improvisations.
Minari – named for a hardy herb used in Korean and South-east Asian cooking that Soonja plants in the woods – is rich in emotion and narrative surprises, with superb performances – in particular from Yeun, the Korean-American actor best known for his part in The Walking Dead (2010-16) and his standout role as the sinister Ben in Lee Changdong’s Burning (2018). Here he demonstrates his range, making Jacob a sensitive yet determined everyman with a wild dream, but whose intelligence cannot conquer the complicated realities.
As a family drama that confounds the usual portrayal of how immigrants are defined or maligned by society at large, Minari’s subdued, poignant drama expresses a rare honesty about that experience, and brings to the fore what many families have been unable to say to each other, or to us all.
Violet Lucca: Minari is a departure from your previous films in that you used a script instead of an outline during shooting. Still, there’s a strong visual continuity: shots of small gestures, or close-ups that convey tactility and emotion. Were those based on your own memories, or were they aesthetic decisions made during shooting?
Lee Isaac Chung: We didn’t have much time when we were filming, so we had to grab a lot of those shots on the fly. A lot of what you’re alluding to came from us just driving around the area and finding things and saying, “This is poetic!”
One of those moments is when the family watches a videotape of two singers, and the grandmother tells the kids that their parents used to get all “lovey-dovey” whenever they’d hear the song. You focus on the parents’ faces and know that they’re very far away from that now. It reflects the transnational nature of modern immigration. There’s an idealised idea of what the old country is like, and yet technology circulates images of present-day Korea – there’s what people remember it as, and what it’s actually like. What was your relationship to Korean media growing up?
It was a lot of what you see. We would get these videotapes from Korean grocery stores, and watch them while we ate dinner. You end up feeling not just a connection with place and media, but it’s a matter of the heart. What you’re seeing on the videotape, that’s your parents trying to preserve that culture in a place that’s completely different. I didn’t know to articulate it that way as a kid, of course. I just thought it was something that we did.
You’ve said that you went back to certain films while writing the screenplay. Which films were you looking at, and what were you looking for in them?
Roberto Rossellini was a huge inspiration for me as I was trying to figure this story out, specifically Stromboli  and Journey to Italy . He ties in a lot of spiritual wrestling with marital relationships in those: both films start with an already married couple, and the effort of the film is to see if their relationship can survive. I really dissected them because they don’t work in intuitive ways. Ingrid Bergman in Journey to Italy just goes off and looks at things for most of the film. She’s constantly thinking about death, this spiritual resonance and searching, so I thought about how to integrate that. But I was also picking apart Spielberg films and things that I haven’t paid homage to in the past, because I wanted to create a film that felt like a narrative, dramatic piece.
This is something that UK viewers may not pick up on, but when Jacob goes to the bank for a loan, the banker says, “Reagan’s trying to keep those farmers happy!” – which is absolutely untrue. Farmers suffered greatly under Reagan. That line is the one overtly political piece of dialogue.
Yes. During the farm crisis in the early 1980s, there were a lot of suicides and bankers being shot by farmers. It was a terrible time. You see the repercussions of that in the demise of many family farms. That’s also the time during which we started our farm – ill-advisedly!
In 2016, I read reports about how that was starting again. Bankruptcies were on the rise, as were suicides, and there were questions about whether there was or would soon be a second farm crisis. What’s happened is that everyone’s distracted from that because of other things that get called into the national conversation.
Are we really helping out farmers? I don’t pretend to know the answers. I know a lot of people in my old town in Arkansas are big Trump supporters, and in a way I try to understand them. I try not to judge them for that.
It’s rare to see farmers represented on film, especially in this honest way – you see the physical toll farming takes when Jacob can’t raise his arms after a really tough day in the fields and Monica has to help him put on his shirt.
Farmers are doing everything, I remember that. The fire in the film is based on a catastrophic fire that happened on our farm. But that’s not uncommon for farmers, then or now. In California, where I live now, there are lots of farms that have caught on fire. It’s happening a lot more frequently – environmental degradation.
It’s also unusual to represent the South, a part of America too rarely shown on screen.
Yes. What I thought I was making with this film was a film about farmers and a film about people living in Arkansas. But everyone sees it as an immigrant story and about Korean Americans in particular.
And speaking of Southerners, you’ve cited the great writer Flannery O’Connor as an inspiration.
I always loved Flannery O’Conner, and how she’s not trying to create sympathetic characters. There’s a lot of grace, and she oftentimes allows that idea of grace to come through very reprehensible people. I like that idea – of grace happening in this world and not through the holy, maybe not even through the church. How do you find a new idea of a church on the land or among people within communities? To me, that picture of Paul [the Yi family’s neighbour, played by Will Patton, a devout man who helps Steven on the farm] and the family in this trailer home in the middle of Arkansas, sharing a meal – that to me is a very Christian image.
He’s Russian, not Southern of course, but Chekhov was also a big influence. The literary influences on Minari were greater than other films I’ve made in the past, when I was looking at Terrence Malick and Hou Hsiao-Hsien. Here I had in mind the stories of Chekhov, Willa Cather and John Steinbeck; I was trying to work in that space and tell a story about a family that’s trying to create a new identity on the land.
Christian imagery runs through the film, such as when the grandmother takes David down to the creek where the minari grows and they see a snake. She tells him that it’s better to have something dangerous out in the open rather than letting it be hidden, a line that is taken from Mississippi poet Claude Wilkinson. What relationship does Christianity have in your own life? Most Koreans in Korea identify as atheists, but those who are Christian are often very devout.
Yes, they are. Among Korean immigrants the majority tends to be Christian, because that was the way they immigrated to America – through the support network of churches. I grew up with faith being an important fabric of my life. That comes with my life in the South – it was just a given that you believe. Back then, diversity meant: are you Baptist or are you Methodist? [Laughs.] But at the same time, when I got to college, I chose evolutionary biology as my major. There were a lot of things that I wanted to question and not just take as a given.
I still find it a part of my life that anchors me, that I deeply rely on. But I think the church has quite frankly been a harmful thing. There have been times in my own life where I’ve let faith bring out bigotry in me, and I realised that I had to grow and learn and question things.
I thought that this film might be the last one I would make. Everything that I think about and question – from love to life to death to religion – it’s all in there, really: it’s personal. I wanted each character to be wrestling with what I wrestle with, but not to do it in a self-serious way. Hopefully I threw in enough pee jokes that everyone has a good time. [Laughs.]
Paul is an important character. You’ve said that he’s based on a real person your family knew?
Will [Patton] and I talked about the character being a holy fool – a fool who was wiser than everybody. And the guy who this Paul is based on would always refer to himself that way. Will and I wanted that element, but we also wanted him to be completely human. Because what matters in many of these scenes is not what these characters are doing, but why they are doing things.
For instance, the scene when Paul comes into the home to perform an exorcism for them. Monica’s expression when she’s asking him to come in – you understand that she is so desperate, that she wants this [cleansing] to happen because her mom is sick and she doesn’t know what to do. Those were the things I was interested in drawing out from each character, the human elements, to move them away from the caricatures we have of each other.
There’s a tendency today to write people off, not just based on their identity, but because of what they believe. Was this film conceived as a corrective to that?
I suspect all of us are sick of that. We understand that we’re being put into these boxes. And not all of us want to be in those boxes.
In that way, Monica and her mother are far from the typical idea of the ‘oriental woman’. Monica always lets Jacob know when she is upset, does the same day job he does, and then comes home and makes dinner for the whole family. When she asserts herself, she’s never nagging. Was that something you wrote in, or did it emerge through conversations with Yeri Han about her character?
It was a combination of both. Yeri was concerned there was a possibility of her character coming off as nagging, and I told her that was my exact concern too. So I said, “Show me the parts where you feel like you’re coming across that way.” There were moments we did refine, and she added ideas, like the swing she makes for the kids. She said, “I don’t see any moment in this film where I as a mother am trying to create fun for the kids, and that’s what I would be doing.” I loved the suggestion.
Similarly, when Monica first arrives at the trailer she refuses Jacob’s hand as he tries to help pull her up. There’s a real attention in the film to the ways the characters interact with the space around them, and on using actions instead of dialogue.
It was in the script that she would have to climb into the trailer, and that it would be clumsy and almost demeaning. I thought that would immediately show what a mistake Jacob was making by doing this to Monica. We did a number of takes, and Yeri was trying to make it look like it was really hard for her, and it just wasn’t working. Finally, I asked, “How would you actually climb up this thing?” So she did it, and you can see the muscles in her back as she’s grabbing on, she’s so determined. Once she did it the way she would actually do it, then it came alive.
Originally, the film concluded with voiceover. You then decided it didn’t work?
I wrote the script with a vague voiceover at the end, and the producers suggested I use it to say something to my parents – that’s kind of the reason we were doing this film; it was for our parents. But just before production, Harry Yoon, our editor, said to me, “I don’t think you need this. Because you jump forward in time, and different actors play David and Anne in high school… We’ve fallen in love with these kids, and then they’re replaced by someone else? It’s not going to work.” He was so right.
I took a night to rewrite the ending. I added the shot of the family sleeping together on the floor, and the grandmother looking toward the camera. I also added that when Jacob is looking for water with the dowser, he doesn’t put the stone down right away and it’s Monica who says, “Go ahead, put it down.” It was all I needed to show that something had changed between them. It lets the film rest in that time period, and doesn’t bring in my parents and a voiceover that says, “This is a story about me.” I wanted this family to live on their own terms, and to send them off in that moment.
Minari puts faith in the verdant fields of a Korean family’s Arkansas farm
Korean-American writer-director Lee Isaac Chung draws on his family history for a tender drama of a migrant family in search of the American Dream.
By Philip Kemp
Sight & Sound Summer 2021
In our current (double) issue we hand centre stage to 100 hidden heroes of cinema who have shaped film history. Plus Ben Wheatley on In the Earth, Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby, Victor Kossakovsky’s pig portrait Gunda, Jane Fonda interviewed, Limbo and refugees on film, and a look back at My Own Private Idaho. Available in print and digitally.Find out more and get a copy