Minari is about Change. Change of roots, lifestyle, character, aspirations, relations, the list is long. When there is a film where the basic theme is so integrated that each element reflects it, you might just accept that it’s a Good Cinema.
Director Lee Isaac Chung who has also written the screenplay reflects his own childhood from the time his family came to America from South Korea in the 1980s. The tone and depth reflect those personal emotions and first-hand observations from Chung’s life. He has created a nostalgic brilliance on screen, similar to Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma. But everyone’s story and experiences are different, and thus, we have so many unique personal movies around us like Roma and Minari.
The film begins with a South Korean family settling in rural America, Arkansas during the 1980s. Jacob Yi (Steven Yeun), a man with an American Dream arrives at the farm in Arkansas with his wife, Monica (Han Ye-ri) and two kids, Anne and David.
Jacob and his wife spent some time in California working as chicken sexers, separating baby chicks by gender. But Jacob’s heart belonged to farming, and thus, he saved enough to buy fifty acres of land in rural Arkansas. Monica isn’t happy with his actions. She wanted to live in a city, where the kids could get a better life and better facilities. She is worried about their son David who has a medical condition (a hole in his heart) and thus might need a medical emergency that isn’t available on the farm side.
However, Jacob is ambitious. He is only concerned about his American Dream. Everything signifies it, his gimme cap, his walk and breast pocket cigarette pack. Jacob’s dream is also the conflicting element in the Jacob-Monica relationship but it is Jacob’s resilient pursuit that keeps the story moving. Their clashes supplement the drama.
The story moves further with different hurdles on the family’s path towards their American Dream. Whether they will be able to achieve it or not, is the primary pursuit of the film. Another subplot exploring cultural indifferences is simultaneously harnessed, when David’s grandmother-in-law, Soon-Ja visits the family.
Dreams, culture and change leads to a soothing end that explains, “Growth is Gradual, and you just have to be patient.”
Message in ‘Minari’ – Embracing Acceptance and Change
Minari isn’t like the generic immigrant story where the immigrant character faces racism and indifference. It is way more unique, as the film is set away from mainstream lands of America where the indifference ideology is prominent.
The film narrates the story of immigrants who are trying to accept the alien characters and foreign land. Each character who was once cynical about a change finally embraces it at last.
Jacob, for example, is skeptical of Christian farmer Paul (Will Patton) who later helps him on the farm. Initially, he thought, Paul is crazy for praising Jesus every other minute. Jacob even thought that the American man was a fraud, who claimed that he can find underground water with his eyes closed, using a wooden stick as a compass. When the Korean business owner cancels Jacob’s farm products, he shouts saying, “Korean people in big cities never help them.” Thus, a cynic who disapproves of everyone. However, in the end, Jacob accepts these American men and embraces their contribution. He becomes a better man who accepts people from different walks of life, which is necessary to grow in a foreign land. Jacob, who came to America with a feeling that money is the answer to everything, understands that money can’t save our human relationships. We only save things, we embrace, and if it’s money or success that is the center of the universe, then we create our own materialistic world. Jacob chooses his family over materialistic gain in the end, and that is the “moment” that Minari celebrates.
Similar changes can be experienced in the character arc of Monica and their son, David.
Monica was skeptical of the tiny frail house Jacob bought for the family, in his own selfishness to buy more farmland. The furiousness is visible on Monica’s face from the start, but soon she accepts that house. She understands that the farm is really important for Jacob to fulfill his dream.
When Monica’s mother, David’s grandmother-in-law, Soon-Ja (Youn Yuh-Jung) visits them, David isn’t ready to accept her or share his room with her. David dislikes her but in the end, he accepts her, moved by a trial of events that happen in the film. It is a heart-melting moment when David speaks to his Grandma, “Please don’t leave, Grandma.”
Symbolism in ‘Minari’
David’s grandmother-in-law, Soon-Ja brings culture to the film as she arrives. She also brings many Korean food items and a special Korean seed called Minari, commonly called Java water dropwort. It has medicinal values and is a prominent part of South-Asian cuisine.
Soon-ja plants Minari seeds in the forest near a half-dried stream, besides some other trees that look like Mangroves. The significance of the Minari seeds is their unique quality to grow anywhere. At one point, Jacob speaks that the soil in their farm is excellent for Korean vegetables, but Minari doesn’t have any special requirements. Without any attention, Minari grows in the forest where Soon-Ja planted it. Minari is also the plant that survives in the end, while all other farm products are burnt to ashes.
Now, the symbolism depicted through Minari seeds could be many. It depends on how the viewers perceive it. In an interview with “The Wrap“, Director Lee Isaac Chung said, “it’s a plant that will grow very strongly in its second season after it has died and come back. So there’s an element of that in the film, so it grows very expansively without doing much to it. It’s a poetic plant in a way for me.”
It symbolizes that things that grow naturally over a period of time last more than things that are forced to grow. Jacob planted Korean vegetables which perished at last, but Minari planted out of love, is still growing till the end. Even Jacob speaks while noticing the plant in the end, “It’s growing well on its own. Grandma picked a good spot.”
Minari is like human emotions. You can’t force one, you just have to let it grow organically.
Another take on Minari from an immigrant point of view would be that it takes time for an immigrant family to establish their presence in a foreign land. Again, one cannot force or cut short the time span that is required. Hence, haste has no place in nature or emotions. If you disrupt that process, things might end up in a disaster, as it happened with Jacob whose farm produce burnt down.
Metaphors and Symbols are very personal and perceptional to each of its viewers. It is the commendable trait of a quality cinema that denies explaining those metaphors. It gives you enough to think about, and that’s how it penetrates your thought process. Like David’s cowboy shoes throughout the film kept hovering over my mind while I tried to decipher its meaning. It could be anything, like “A Kid trying to create his presence in a Cow-Boy Land (America).” It could mean something deeper, but at last, what matters the most, is that it portrayed an emotion that blended with the film. The cumulation of several such attributes makes Minari, a lovely and unique film.
Minari grows slowly and spreads its roots deep inside you. It is another personal film that explores nostalgia through its creator’s perspective and observation. If you are keen on watching Quality Cinema that moves and influences you for good, then do watch the film. You won’t be disappointed.
Minari is 2020 Drama Film directed by Lee Isaac Chung. It is available for Video On Demand on Various Platforms.
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