Minari ‘opens’ this week in the UK with British Film Institute support and it arrives trailing clouds of praise as this year’s ‘indie’ hit film. It has received six Oscar nominations among many others and it has been presented as a ‘feelgood film’ about assimilation. Several reviews make references to the attacks on Asian-Americans during the pandemic, exacerbated by Trump, and how this film might be seen as a positive representation. The film is produced by Brad Pitt’s Plan B company and it’s the fourth feature by Lee Isaac Chung. The film is a 1980s-set family melodrama inspired by the director’s own childhood growing up on an Arkansas farm as the son of Korean migrants. Everybody appears to love the film but on a first viewing I found I was left with several questions. Fortunately I watched it as part of the Borderlines Film Festival which allows 24 hours to watch the film online and I’ve been able to re-view parts of the film.
The narrative begins with the arrival of a family in rural Arkansas after leaving their home in California (a kind of reverse migration to those of the 1930s immortalised in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath). Jacob Yi (Stephen Yuen) has bought a piece of land but his wife Monica (the Korean actor Han Ye-ri) is dismayed to discover that the accommodation on it is a large ‘trailer home’. They have two children, Anne (Noel Kate Cho) and her younger brother David (Alan Kim). Anne is under-used as a character and the focus is clearly on David who has a congenital heart condition. One of Monica’s concerns is how far they are from a hospital. The opening scenes establish that Jacob holds dear to one kind of American Dream, imagining himself as a kind of pioneer homesteader and Monica has a more modern sense of an urban life with all its advantages. The reality is that any income will have to come from chicken sexing for a local poultry business before the new farm venture produces any returns. Jacob’s idea is to grow ‘Korean vegetables’, since as he points out, 30,000 new migrants arrive from Korea each year.
What is important in the family drama is that this is the US in the 1980s. I’m not good on dating film settings since I don’t recognise changes in motor vehicle designs, so I didn’t know the time period until I learned that Monica’s father had died during the Korean War. I couldn’t discern everything the local bank manager says to Jacob, but he does actually make the statement “Reagan is good for farmers like you”. This is nonsense since Reagonomics was actually very bad for small farmers (the Farm Aid campaign began in 1985 because of the crisis for family farms). The film’s dialogue is in Korean with subtitles for the family conversations. Director Chung doesn’t give us much back story but it would seem that David was certainly born in the US, and we know Monica was born in Korea. A photograph at the end of the film shows a Korean wedding photo, but I don’t know if Anne was born in South Korea. It’s my problem, I suppose but I wanted to know more and this worried me throughout the narrative. The political situation in South Korea up to 1987-8 was very bad but this doesn’t figure in any conversations. Monica’s mother magically appears in Arkansas bringing gifts from ‘home’. Bringing Grandma (the veteran Korean actor Youn Yuh-Jung) into the household is presented as Jacob’s attempt to assuage Monica’s anger at the situation she finds herself in but the biggest impact is actually on David who develops a relationship with his Korean grandmother, at first confrontational but later close and loving. It’s this relationship which arguably earns the film the feelgood label.
Minari is presented in a CinemaScope format for the photography of Lachlan Milne (who shot Hunt for the Wilderpeople, (New Zealand 2016)) with a score by Emile Mosseri which I didn’t really notice first time round (I find some soundtracks don’t work well online unless you have a home cinema system). It’s certainly a well-made film with strong performances and direction. But what is it really saying? One aspect of the film that will perhaps confuse some UK audiences is the role of religion. The family decide to become members of a local church (which provides a bus for the children). This is the so-called ‘Bible belt’ of the US and the locals seem remarkably friendly. Jacob doesn’t appear to be a believer as such but finds himself employing a local farmhand played by Will Patton, who turns out to be a Korean War veteran and someone so devout he carries his own full size crucifix along the local roads on a Sunday (cf Steve McQueen’s Lovers Rock UK 2020). In an interview, director Chung explains that the Korean migrants to the US in the 1980s were often funded by US Protestant church organisations. He himself was, as a child, part of the local church community but has now begun to feel that: “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”. This interview by Violet Lucca in Sight and Sound, March 2021 is very interesting. (I’m not sure how to deal with the Korean names associated with this film, I usually put the family name first, but this is often reversed in the US. I’m not sure if the family name of the director is ‘Chung’ or ‘Lee’, both common Korean family names.)
The title ‘Minari’ refers to a South-East Asian vegetable, similar in some ways to watercress in the UK – it thrives by running water. Grandma smuggles in seeds to the US and plants them on the farm by a stream and they thrive. The film ends with these minari plants which creates a set of meanings I won’t spoil. As I’ve tried to indicate, this is a well-made film which raises for me many interesting issues but possibly didn’t work as the family melodrama I hoped it would be. I’m still glad I saw it and it may become an interesting film to work with in future. Whether it will become a big hit in the UK, I don’t know (and anyway with online releases, how do we tell?). I think my problem is more to do with how the film has been discussed in the US and how it is being treated as an ‘awards film’. I’ve cropped the top and bottom of the poster image above, but the central group composition is left untouched. This presents what I would consider a very good image to use for a semiotic analysis. The family composition seems to be seeking a reference to the films of Kore-eda Hirokazu, specifically Like Father, Like Son (Japan 2013). Ozu is another director referenced by reviewers, especially a film like Ohayu (Japan 1959). I’m surprised that Edward Yang hasn’t also been mentioned because of Yi-Yi (Taiwan 2000). These are all family melodramas with young boys as central characters. Note also the hazy sun connoting that ‘feelgood’ sense. (Or is it meant to be ‘magic hour light’ as used in Days of Heaven (1978) by Terrence Malick, one of the directors Chung namechecks?) The position of the figures in the composition refers to aspects of the conflicts in the film. Husband and wife are separated by the children. He looks down but she looks at him. What is she thinking? The daughter too looks down and the focus is clearly on the smiling David who in effect ‘owns’ the image. I’m not sure if the huge American flag on the building appears in the film. Perhaps I noticed it in the poster because the current right-wing UK government is plastering itself with Union Jacks? It seems here to raise questions of identity and the American dream which always invoke mixed emotions for me.
I think one of the issues with my readings of this film is that I simply don’t know enough about the Korean migration to the US. I think it is inevitable that in attempting to make sense of migrations we make comparisons between host countries and migration flows. The UK and the US are both similar and different in many ways but our experience of migrations is certainly different. The concept of ‘assimilation’ and the embrace of new values v. the desire to maintain contact with your roots has been a major difference between the US and UK, though that might be changing. At the moment I’m deeply saddened by the nationalistic and jingoist nonsense of the current UK government, following on from the ‘America first’ of Trump. I note that Lee Isaac Chung has said that he was careful not to judge the people he knew in Arkansas, many of whom have become Trump supporters. I’ll be interested to see how the reception of this film plays out in the UK.