With an ever so slightly grassy, peppery taste and a mild, glorious fragrance, Minari is a weed-like plant indigenous to East Asia that grows expansively in wetlands without much human interaction needed. In fact, once it has set its roots and has died after a harsh winter, it tends to grow even better. Whilst seemingly irrelevant, this profile of the East Asian vegetable, which shares its name with Lee Isaac Chung’s latest film, in many ways tells us all we need to know. Minari is a film deep-rooted and ready to flourish; it’s perhaps a shame we instead only see its gradual growth.
Though conversely, the film’s diluted and steady softness is its central strength. It flows gracefully like a breeze through long grass, but crucially, passes undisturbed, leaving little lasting impression.
Arriving at their new home, an expansive Arkansas farm, in search of their own ‘American Dream’, a Korean family led by father, Jacob (Steven Yeun) hope to create a “big, big garden” using, as Jacob calls it, the “best dirt in America”. Though these wishes are not shared by wife Monica, who is doubtful of the monumental task at hand, and instead wants to focus on the nurture of their family, particularly the heath of young son David (Alan S. Kim). With a desire to put more focus on family, Monica enlists the help of her elderly mother, Soonja (Yuh-Jung Youn), whose relationship with young David fosters the film’s core sentiment.
Together, David and his grandmother engage in boisterous activity, playing raucous card games one minute before trekking to the farm’s creek to plant some Minari soon after. “Grandma, you’re not a real grandma,” he says, to which she replied: “What is a real grandma?” and David lists the reasons “they bake cookies, they don’t swear, they don’t wear men’s underwear”. Their relationship is certainly enchanting, with the generationally disparate grandmother the film’s strongest character. Played by legendary South Korean screen actor Yuh-Jung Youn, her character is layered and deep-rooted in the family’s Asain heritage, a living reminder of that which they have left behind.
Whilst this relationship blooms in the film’s background, father Jacob works tirelessly on the land, planting crops and organising irrigation. It’s wearying but rewarding work, particularly when he seeks the help of farmhand and devout Christian Paul (Will Patton), who is a crucial help when he’s not dragging a wooden cross down the town’s country roads. Such references echo a religious undertone to Minari and Lee Isaac Chung’s script, Jacob’s agricultural venture, after all, is a massive undertaking with various nods to the biblical ‘Garden of Eden’. A recurring issue for him is his search for a water source across the farmland, the essential mineral of life, itself a referential nod to “Jacob’s well”, a story from the book of John, not to mention the appearance of a large snake deep in the farm’s creek. This creates a rich subtext in which to embed the story, a tender, lovingly crafted tale of redemption and metamorphosis.
Soft and subtle Minari may be, though it doesn’t quite carry the impactful weight it believes to possess. Taking its time to sculpt its delicate characters, the film would’ve benefited from a little more time to enjoy their mere presence and interaction, particularly when it comes to the role of the daughter, who is all but shunned to the film’s outermost periphery. As it is, Minari is less of a grand familial epic, and more of a simple, poignant parable, though what’s the harm in that.