Minari has a quietly radical approach to the cinematic immigrant story
There are, broadly speaking, two immigrant narratives that reoccur in North American storytelling. The first one is that classic tale of bootstrapping, enterprising immigrants who come here with nothing, find a nook where they belong and spin fame and fortune out of it. This is the Godfather II model, where more often than not finding a spot within the mechanism of capitalism and milking it for all it’s worth is a more-than-satisfactory foot in the door. The second one is one that has gained more traction in festival settings in the last few years, so much so that it probably doesn’t even belong to North American storytelling tradition. It’s the one about the alienated immigrant who, finding themselves a stranger in a strange land with no real community or support system, fall through the cracks and must resort to nefarious / humiliating / soul-crushing / demeaning behaviour in order not to die in a ditch somewhere. Spoiler alert for the general concept of the thing: they often wind up dying in that very same ditch.
It’s easy to see why these kinds of stories are appealing — and, in truth, they’ve made for some great movies in some cases — but they only offer the very extremes of the immigrant experience. I’m not an immigrant myself, so I can’t speak to any notion of realism or lack thereof within these films, but I only have to look around me for a second to know that the majority of immigrants aren’t either titans of industry or petty criminals living hand-to-mouth and falsifying immigration papers for a living. Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari is about that invisible middle — the immigrants whose life story perhaps doesn’t follow the highly-tragic arc of an Iñárritu film, but whose stories are more common and relatable than our film industry might let on.
Jacob (Steven Yeun) and Monica Yi (Han Ye-ri) are Korean immigrants who move to California in the 1970s with agricultural dreams. When the film opens, they’ve moved their children, six-year-old David (Alan Kim) and pre-teen Anne (Noel Kate Cho) to Arkansas, where Jacob has purchased a plot of land and a mobile home in the hopes of building a farm on which to grow Korean produce to supply growing Korean populations in nearby city centres. Jacob has a chip on his shoulder about his children (who speak Korean but have grown up entirely in America) seeing him “fail” as a chicken sexer, the job he continues to do in Arkansas to finance the farming operation, and he feels that his success as a father and as a provider rests in the success of the farm. The plot of land he’s selected, however, isn’t the easiest to farm, and many problems await the Yi family in the Arkansan chapter of their lives.
The minari of the title refers to a sort of weed that the family’s grandmother (Youn Yuh-jang) plants by the creek behind their home. Minari, she explains, has a nearly infinite amount of uses, and it grows easily and with great resilience. It’s a little obvious as a metaphor, but it represents just about the only obvious thing about Minari. Chung draws heavily from his own experience (he, too, is the child of Korean immigrants who grew up on a farm in Arkansas) and he strikes a perfect balance between the subjectivity of his own recollections and the relative objectivity of the story he’s telling. It’s difficult to tell a story entirely from the point of view of a child, because you risk boxing in your storytelling possibilities to exclusively what a child can comprehend, but Minari is extremely nimble when it comes to perspective. David is the central figure, but it’s not a film that’s specifically about his perception of things, even if the film often employs the blurred constraints of memory when telling its story. It’s essentially an ensemble piece that doesn’t feel like one.
It feels, I suppose, disingenuous to describe Minari for all the things it’s not, but it has a quietly radical approach to its story that’s most obvious in the things it avoids. Minari isn’t a fish-out-of-water story in which two sets of values ultimately prove to clash; it isn’t even really a story about racism, or at least not in the gung-ho way that a more obvious film might pit frothing-at-the-mouth Southern racist stereotypes against the Yi family. There’s practically none of that, just some palpable confusion / discomfort when the Yis show up to church. I have no idea whether or not this is realistic (Chung would know, granted) but it’s one of the myriad of ways in which Minari avoids the clear traps sprung by decades of facile dramatic writing.
It’s not going to be the most obvious of parallels, but watching Minari reminded me of Louis Bélanger’s Gaz Bar Blues in the way that it can weave the extraordinary out of the relatively ordinary daily life of a family. Minari never needs to do too much to do plenty, and that follows through to the music, the cinematography and the performances by the cast. I imagine something equivalent to Minari would’ve gotten a ton more play if it was about, oh, the first Korean-American billionaire, but Minari proves that a life doesn’t have to be extraordinary to be worthy. ■
Minari is in theatres and on VOD on Friday, Feb. 26. For more information about the film, please visit its IMDB page. Watch the trailer below:
Minari, directed by Lee Isaac Chung, starring Steven Yeun
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