Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari is a semi-autobiographical account of his experience growing up as the child of first-generation Korean immigrant farmers in rural Arkansas in the early 1980s. The entire film revolves around the Yi family – father Jacob, played by Stephen Yuen, mother Monica, played by Han Ye-ri, and children David (Alan Kim) and Anne (Noel Kate Choo), along with their grandmother Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung), who comes to live with them halfway through the film. Despite being set in Arkansas, Minari is almost entirely delivered in Korean, situating us within the broader rhythm and trajectory of Korean-American immigration in the 70s and 80s. Jacob is interested in harvesting crops for the expanding Korean-American market, and through his agricultural practice we hear about the waves of Koreans moving through the deep South, settling in Oklahoma City, and eventually heading out to Los Angeles.
Most of Minari is driven by the relationship between David and his Soon-ja, and between David and Jacob, who continually delivers ruminations on life and the land. It makes sense that David and Jacob have the only biblical names, since the film takes on a particularly pastoral intensity in their presence, as Chung reimagines the myth of westward expansion from a Korean perspective. In his version, westward expansion started all the back in Korea – or has Korea as its final destination, dissociating the most primal and pastoral visions of the American west from the white man’s burden that they typically affirm. From the opening scene, when Jacob shows his family the dirt on their property – “the best dirt in America” – this is less a conventional immigrant drama that a western with eastern characters, driven by Jacob’s dream of land, and his need to prove himself as a father and a farmer to his family.
Of course, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that these characters are immigrants, since they’re continually speaking Korean in recognisably American landscapes. Yet Chung continually refrains from presenting immigration as a trauma narrative, to the point where this doesn’t even register as an immigrant drama in the terms normally prescribed by Hollywood cinema. Rather than the Yis arriving in a new landscape, a new culture seems to come to them, bit by bit, through the quiet hush that percolates through every scene in the film. This is the hush of immigrant life, the sense of existing in a bubble, which can certainly be isolating at times, but in Chung’s hands is more often serene, affirming that the Yis can survive despite all odds.
As a result, Minari blooms with a mood of quiet fecundity – the fecundity of the farm, the fecundity of the family, and the fecundity of Korean-American culture more generally. The minari herb is the main figure of this fecundity, since, as Soon-ja explains to David, it grows anywhere, like a weed, meaning that anyone can eat it, rich or poor, Korean or American. Rather than focus on Korean integration, Chung commands landscape with the same breezy assurance as the white directors who defined American cinema at the time the events of the film are set – especially Terence Malick, whose Days of Heaven brim beneath every sequence.
Unusually, this presents the early Reagan era in a pastoral mode, from the perspective of the very people who might be expected to be most disenfranchised by it. At times, I wondered whether Chung’s parents might have been Republican supports, or Reagan supporters, since this would be a pretty idealised vision of this period in a film about white characters. Yet it’s also part of the film’s originality that it completely excludes any depictions of overt racism – serenity is the whole point here, and nothing ever really ruptures it. All the conflicts are biological, rather than social – iterations of the circle of life that connect the farm to the characters along a single pastoral continuum whose very ebbs and flows are serene in themselves. We move from poor seedlings and bad wells to Soon-ja’s stroke and David’s heart murmur, and from there to a fire that almost destroys the farm. These two planes – the corporeal and the pastoral – come together in David’s body. His parents worry that their fighting has caused a hole in his heart, but in the end the sustenance of their farming heals it.
There’s no sense at all, then, that we’re in a racist country, let alone a notoriously racist part of the country. Instead, Chung opts for a mutual curiosity, a slightly picaresque regard, between the Korean and American members of this small Arkansas community. Rather than being sources of conflict or prejudice, white people are arcane and exotic specimens who seem to have stumbled on the Yi family’s sovereign territory, rather than vice versa. When we first meet Paul, a Korean War veteran played by Will Patton, it looks like the Yis might be in for trouble, but he turns out to be an eccentric water diviner, faith healer and exorcist, who offers his wacky services to their farming endeavour without a moment’s hesitation. Even the American accent seems quite uncanny here – full of odd intonations and inflections, as if we were watching Koreans in whiteface, parsing through a mother tongue that is not their own.
At its best, this all produces a patient and beautiful depiction of working-class life, shot through with the tics and beats of Korean-American experience. With David as the main character, the film does a good job of capturing the serene quietness of childhood experience, and paints quite a touching portrait, by the end, of his relationship with his Soon-ja. Yet Minari also feels like a generic indie film for long stretches as well, laying it on pretty thick when it comes to the cutesiness of children and old people, when Jacob’s not waxing sententiously about the importance of land. That alternation between saccharine sentimentality and sententious speechifying gets a bit grating by the end, resulting in a film that’s finally a bit less than the sum of its parts – original in its broad vision of Korean-American pastoral life, but fairly twee in its particulars, which nearly always focus on the magic of being a child, or the importance discovering your inner child, both fairly heavily-trod ground in American indies.
Admittedly, the film ends with Jacob choosing the farm over his family, which takes the edge of the sugariness by the final scenes. Still, the film feels more solipsistic and self-regarding as it goes, like a memoir that is acting more like a trigger to the author’s memories than a text that operates for a wider audience on its own terms. In effect, we’re watching Chung’s own personal memory palace, which finally seems a bit generic without having his actual experiences to embellish what we see on screen. Perhaps what’s most remarkable about Minari, then,is how unremarkable it all is, since this is a Korean-American immigrant drama that is free of any really enduring trauma, conflict or even regular character development. In other words, a generic Korean-American film, made for Korean-American audiences who will instantly connect with the experience, rather than white audiences longing for a lesson about their own racism – a film that speaks directly to Korean-Americans through American cinema.