Every year there’s at least one movie that will touch me personally and force me to reflect upon my own life experiences: films like The Farewell, Mid90s, Soul, or The Big Sick. Although they often don’t act like a full-blown mirror I can see myself in, I do end up latching onto very specific aspects of their stories, some characters, themes, ideas or elements of tone. And consequently, these movies linger in my head. They linger. And linger.
Minari is one of those movies that linger.
Even though it somehow evaded me for a while – thanks to the pandemic and widespread cinema closures, no doubt – I finally sat down with Lee Isaac Chung’s film about which I desperately tried to avoid knowing anything ever since it premiered at Sundance. I suppose I must have instinctively known it was one of those movies. Granted, there is absolutely nothing in it to spoil, as it is essentially plotless, but going in (almost) completely blind helped me immensely and allowed Minari to wash over me and transport me into the hybrid universe of my own memories intertwined with desires, regrets and dreams.
Although this semiautobiographical tale about a Korean family starting a farm in rural Arkansas is most likely geared to resonate in a personal way with a specific niche of people whose life experiences mirror somewhat those of Lee Isaac Chung’s, Minari is quite universal in what it deals with, how it deals with what it deals with, and how it can make the viewer feel about how it deals with what it deals with. In short, the film uses its story about a family trying to reduce the American Dream to practice through sheer hard work and determination whilst juggling between seemingly opposing desires, one to assimilate into their adoptive environment and the other to preserve the cultural roots that brought them into this world, as a panoramic canvas upon which a sun-drenched and moody pastoral is painted with a combination of broad emotional strokes and perfectly dotted details giving the whole piece its unique dimension and glow.
I suppose by way of shadowing a stubborn father (Steven Yeun), his resilient wife (Han Ye-ri) and their little nuclear family, Chung was paying due homage to his own parents who toiled on their hands and knees so that he wouldn’t have to. And indeed, the film succeeds in tipping the hat towards those of us who were brave (or desperate) enough to one day decide to risk it all, leave the comfort of our motherland and seek happiness elsewhere. In doing so it finds the absolute perfect balance between honouring the courage and resilience it takes to sequester yourself from everything and everyone you ever knew in order to build a home for yourself on the other side of the globe and the rarely talked about trauma of unwittingly deciding to put your own children in a position of cultural homelessness. Minari accomplishes this without ever resorting to anything more than treating the characters the way a gardener treats his crops. There’s no dramatically exhilarating plot here for you to hang your hat onto. But there are stakes. There’s urgency and pressure of real life bearing onto the shoulders of the characters depicted without glamourizing or colour-correcting anything to ensure viewers wouldn’t find it boring. It’s a patient film. Minari is a love letter to all those souls who persevered through immense crises because something in their souls kept telling them they should act. Do better. Move. And succeed on their own terms.
However, what is the most interesting about the way the filmmakers write this immigrant sonnet is a little piece of nuance often overlooked in similar stories and which becomes a fundamental pillar upon which this entire story is resting. In fact, it is even in the title – minari – a type of Korean celery that one of the characters plants on the family farmland, right beside a creek. Together with what Jacob (Steven Yeun) is doing on his farm, which is growing Korean vegetables to be sold and used by other Korean immigrants spread across America, this vegetable represents something deeply important to the film’s emotional core. It allows the viewer to see Jacob’s family as more than people on the run from poverty or in pursuit of the elusive American Dream. They are building something more than a family homestead. They are creating a slice of their homeland, a home away from home. Moreover, their prospective success hinges upon the idea of giving other Korean expats an opportunity to remain connected to their culture despite living thousands of miles away from where they grew up. They no longer have to count on distant relatives sending them spices and dried herbs in order to remember the smell of their mum’s kitchen. They can do it themselves. They can safely build their happiness without sacrificing their roots. And this titular plant, unremarkable as it is in the way it looks, is the ultimate piece of the puzzle here. It symbolizes the act of transplanting your culture onto foreign soil and seeing the soil adopt it as its own.
That’s how Minari got to my heart – by reminding me I can and should strive to do the same. Even though I live abroad and my heart aches nostalgically every day, I can plant my own minari. I can build my own farm. I can have a home away from home. I don’t have to always think of myself as a guest abroad or a lesser human because of where I come from, even though many people continually try to convince me it might be the case. Your homeland is where your loved ones are. The rest can be cultivated from ground up with some tender love and care. That way, your children will never grow up homeless or stuck between two cultures: one they only had second-hand knowledge of and the other in which they were outsiders looking in. If you remember to plant your own minari and never fail to give your best, your kids will grow up culturally bilingual instead.
And if a movie can make you pause for deep reflection about the way you conduct yourself, or even motivate you to course-correct in some way, you know this movie is special. So, let’s just say Minari is special to me as it helped me re-contextualize my own goals and reaffirmed my long-suppressed beliefs that I too can have a home away from home. That I don’t have to always be bothered by this idea I’ll one day have to pack up and go back to a country I might no longer recognize. I can plant my own minari, build a farm of my own and find purpose in cultivating a slice of my homeland abroad.