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▶ Minari is released on VOD in the UK on 2 April.
The screen output of the Korean-American filmmaker Lee Isaac Chung defies classification: ‘eclectic’ scarcely covers it. His first feature Munyurangabo (2007) was shot (in two weeks) in Rwanda, the first film to be made in the Kinyarwanda language, and traces the quest for justice of a young Tutsi boy orphaned by the Rwandan massacre of 1994. In Lucky Life (2010) a group of friends travel to a North Carolina beach house to support one of their number who’s been diagnosed with terminal cancer. The oneiric Abigail Harm (2012), inspired by a Korean folk tale and set in a quirkily alternative New York, stars Amanda Plummer as a lonely woman who reads to the blind; happening on a naked man, she takes him home with her.
And now comes Minari, named for a peppery and easily grown herb used in Korean cooking; this, Chung has said, is the film he always wanted to make. The plot, though not strictly autobiographical, draws strongly on the writer-director’s own background: like David (Alan Kim), the seven-year-old boy on whom the action focuses, he was born in America to immigrant Korean parents and grew up on a farm in rural Arkansas. What the film shares with its three widely differing predecessors is a quiet humour and a gentle sympathy that never slips into sentimentality. And Minari in particular explores the shifting dynamics of family relationships in a way that often recalls Ozu.
Two family tensions fuel the action. Monica (Yeri Han) angrily resents her husband Jacob (Steven Yeun) for uprooting her and their children from urban California to live in “hillbilly” country. “What is this place?” she demands furiously and, introduced to the ugly extended trailer that’s to be their home, “It just gets worse and worse!” Jacob’s aspirations to proud crop-growing independence, his hopes for his children “to see me succeed at something”, only increase her exasperation; even once he’s struck a promising deal with a local trader to sell the Korean vegetables he’s raising for the immigrant community, she accuses him of putting his ambitions ahead of his family and threatens to leave with the kids.
Interwoven with this comes the other family rift – often comic, but tinged with poignancy – between David and his newly-arrived grandmother. Monica brings her mother Soonja (veteran Korean star Youn Yuh-jung) over from Korea to look after the children while she and Jacob are at work; but David, mistrustful of the grandma he’s never met and resentful at having to share his bedroom with her, takes stubbornly against her. She doesn’t qualify as a “real grandma”, he sulkily tells her: “They bake cookies! They don’t swear! They don’t wear men’s underwear!” She brings him a Korean drink she calls “country water”’; disliking it, he revenges himself by giving her a cup of piss to drink. Only in the aftermath of the film’s culminating catastrophe can he bring himself to show affection for her.
There’s comedy of a more wholehearted kind in the appealingly eccentric figure of Paul (Will Patton, who also featured in Abigail Harm), who comes to deliver a tractor to the farm and stays on to work with Jacob. Given to breaking out into loud, fervent prayer, he spends his Sundays toting a heavy cross around the local roads. The only lead character who never comes fully into focus is David’s older sister Anne (Noel Cho, making her screen debut). A quiet, responsible figure, left largely in the background, she’s granted relatively little dialogue and her feelings remain opaque.
This lacuna apart, Minari more than justifies its enthusiastic reception at Sundance (where it took the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award) and since. It is a tenderly made film, one that feels authentic and fully lived-in; dialogue constantly switches, as it surely would have done in this context, between Korean and English. Avoiding the temptation of a facile happy ending, Chung settles instead for a modest wisp of hope – and appropriately, it’s one that features the eponymous, grandmother-planted herb.
“I wanted each character to be wrestling with what I wrestle with”: Lee Isaac Chung on Minari
Lee Isaac Chung’s gently comic semi-autobiographical drama Minari is an acutely observed portrait of a Korean-American family’s hardscrabble attempts to live off the land in rural Arkansas. He talks about faith, farming and family ties.
By Violet Lucca
Sight and Sound November 2021
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