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10 March 2021updated 14 Sep 2021 2:09pm

Why the jury’s still out on Minari, an immigrant story with a one-size-fits-all message

The Golden Globe-winning drama follows a Korean-American family, telling a tender tale of rural struggle.

By Ryan Gilbey

Minari won a Golden Globe last month, though it is a source of controversy that a picture made in the US with a largely American cast and crew should prevail as Best Foreign Language Film. (Blame that rinky-dink awards body, which stipulates that a movie with less than 50 per cent of English dialogue can only compete in that category.)

Korean immigrants Jacob Yi (Steven Yeun) and his wife Monica (Han Ye-ri) probably wouldn’t care, not being big on assimilation. They have moved the 1,700-odd miles from California to Arkansas with their young children, Anne (Noel Kate Cho) and David (Alan S Kim), to a plot of land that Jacob refers to first as a garden – the Garden of Eden, no less – and then as a farm.

His plan is to cater for the estimated 30,000 ­Koreans arriving in the US each year by growing the produce they enjoyed back home. The bank manager approves – “Reagan’s out to make sure the farmers are happy,” he says – but Monica doesn’t. When Jacob shows her the quality of the soil, she’s too upset about their living quarters, a mobile home perched on cinder blocks, to be swayed by a handful of dirt.

In a pattern that many immigrant families will recognise, the adults talk mainly in their native tongue at home, with the children slipping into English. When David complains that his grandmother (Youn Yuh-jung) “smells Korean”, he is upbraided by his sister. How would he know when he’s never been there?

Grandma has recently moved in, and is put in the same room as David, who has been wetting the bed. She has heard that American children aren’t keen on sharing. “He’s not like that,” Monica assures her. “He’s Korean.”

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While Jacob waits for the farm to take off, he and Monica earn a wage “sexing” chickens – the skilled but laborious work of sorting female chicks from males. Sitting outside, David asks his father about the smoke wafting from the factory chimney. Ah, says Jacob, that’s the male birds, which are “discarded” because they serve no function. It is important, he goes on, for everything to be useful, people included. Those words can only have a chastening effect on a child born with a weak heart, as David was. Damaged chicks end up on the discarded pile. Perhaps the same fate lies in store for him.

David’s father also wants to feel useful. “The children need to see me succeed at something for once,” he tells Monica during one of their arguments about the farm. Then he downgrades that wish: “Even if I fail, I have to finish what I started.”

[see also: Tom Hanks breathes humanity into the Civil War-era Western News of the World]

Lee Isaac Chung’s autobiographical film plaits together several familiar strands. Threaded through this look at the immigrant experience is a story of rural struggle: digging a well, irrigating the land, ­finding buyers. Jacob enlists a farmhand, Paul (Will Patton), who advises exorcising the ground (the previous owner killed himself when the crops failed). The Yi family attend church but Paul goes that extra mile. He spends his Sundays dragging an enormous wooden cross up and down the road. He is prone to speaking in tongues and blessing the aubergines.

One predominant element here is the strain of cute, odd-couple comedy between David and Grandma, who swears, deals cards, and fails conspicuously to do any grandmotherly baking. When she presents David with a disgusting potion containing crushed deer antlers, he gets his revenge by serving her a cup of his own pee.

His animosity towards this strange woman with bags of chilli powder in her luggage suggests a plausible fear of his own foreignness. Would you be surprised, though, to learn that woman and child put aside their differences? Grandma takes David out to the creek, further from the family’s land than he has been before, where she is happy to see a snake in this Eden – after all, she says, things are less scary or dangerous once they’re out in the open. She plants some seeds she has brought with her from Korea: minari, a herb, which can grow anywhere, like weeds.

Sure enough, it thrives. After the family has been through fire, drought, financial hardship and illness, Jacob lovingly harvests some of the minari. I think we can all agree by this point that it has become a symbol of the indomitable human spirit.

More than half a century ago, David Lynch directed a very different film about a little boy who wets the bed and finds solace from his shouting, squabbling parents in the company of a grandmother. In Lynch’s telling, the child grows the old lady from a seed (like minari).

Measuring these films against one another would be as pointless as comparing apples and aubergines but The Grandmother does leave an indelible impression. It’s too soon to say the same about Minari. The ­picture’s chief contribution, alongside some extremely subtle and acutely observed ­performances, is the consoling ­message that everyone is the same underneath. Films with that sort of one-size-fits-all sentiment tend not to linger. The very opposite of ­minari, in fact.

“Minari” is available to stream from 2 April

Minari (PG)
dir: Lee Isaac Chung

[see also: Quo Vadis, Aida? is a powerful drama about the Srebrenica genocide]

This article appears in the 10 Mar 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Grief nation