A family moves to a new home. The place is huge, acres big, swept by a rug of bright wild grass. On its edge lies a long house seated on wheels. Above are soft blue skies. Here is their next chapter. The mother weeps, the children cheer, and the father starts analysing the flow of groundwater. He intends to build a farm.
The family of Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari, when we first see them, are freshly displaced: they’ve just moved from California to rural Arkansas, in hope of a fresh start. They left Korea long ago, a lifetime ago it seems, and now they’ve lived and worked in America for years and years but have gotten nowhere. The big garden seems like their last hope – or at least that’s how the father, Jacob Yi (Steven Yeun), sees it; his wife Monica (Yeri Han), however, mourns the isolation. The two Yi kids – the calmly sensible Anne (Noel Cho), and her younger brother, seven-year-old David (Alan S. Kim), a pudgy little boy with a weak heart – don’t really care. All they want is for their parents to be happy. Indeed, the Yi family’s perspectives and experiences vary enormously, as the film wanders from person to person, shifting its sympathies here and there.
And so the Yi’s strain towards assimilation and cultivation, gathering in tow their wacko-Christian neighbour, Paul (Will Patton), and Monica’s mother, Soonja (Youn Yuh-jung), who arrives from Korea to assist the troop, forcing a tragi-comic wedge into the family dynamic. She is, in some ways, the platonic Asian grandmother ideal: proprietor of an enormous wealth of food, addicted to games, and, to David’s horror, the benefactor of an expensive but extremely unpalatable medicinal broth – something every Asian grandmother is incomplete without. But Soonja is also hopelessly juvenile, almost modern in her idle cheek, proving a fiery (in more ways than one) addition to the cinematic trove of sanctimonious Asian grandmums (more mellow entrants exist in, obviously, The Farewell , and equally importantly, Hustlers  and Shoplifters ).
Even with a kindly grandmother, and a through line that seems to emphasise the intrinsic strength of the family unit, the series of misfortunes that befall the Yis split them as often as it unites. Monica and Jacob interpret familial sacrifice in wildly different ways, perhaps signifying a fracture between Korean and American values. But still, with the home they’ve left behind, the history of their pre-Arkansas life, and their ties with anyone other than themselves left almost entirely unexplored – other members of their family, for instance, or the people they’ve left behind in Korea – it’s difficult to hold any strong feelings either way.
Luckily, within the turbulent family it’s little David’s world that we inhabit the most, as he fumbles out of bed and checks nervously the dampness of the mattress on which he’s slept; as he presses a small uncertain hand to his chest, feeling it out for heart murmurs. It’s his experiences that colour the film’s most special and tender moments – his slow growing endearment towards his grandma for instance, or one scene where he listens in on a discussion of his illness through the thin walls of his home. “His heart could stop at any moment”, comes one voice, and the stillness of David’s open, gentle face breaks the heart through and through, as he stands, unreadable, dazed in the sunlight.
It’s also perhaps because of this that the world of Minari, despite the family’s reckless turmoil, never feels physically unclean, never grimy or unpleasant, but always waxy, bright, and beautiful – a world in which his parents’ maliciousness can be hopefully warded off by a few paper planes with the words ‘DON’T FIGHT’ scrawled big in crayon. The pleasantness of this exercise dulls the impact of the adult struggle, as the sudden changes in perspective from kid to parent feel incongruous, given their separate interests. It’s jarring to approach the family’s immigrant experience with the rash wonder and uncertainty of a kid’s perspective, but to also remain concretely invested in mum and dad’s financial disputes.
Emile Mosseri’s grand, choral orchestrations, however, tinge the Yi journey with a sense of the epic, the mythical. As the family arrives, in the opening scenes, to a wide field of green and a rickety mobile home, as the patriarch toils at the land, as crops grow and familial tensions ease and snap, it’s as if the family is walking in well-worn steps, reliving a universal experience endured by many before, and many after. Because of this, and with the way it shies from its protagonists’ contexts, Minari doesn’t specifically embody an ‘immigrant story’, nor an interpretation of the American dream – Chung chooses to look at a single chapter of life through the eyes of a child, as opposed to the more holistic ventures of the whole family’s dreams and experiences, tied with, perhaps, the life they’ve lost in Korea. As a result, Minari steeps in something more universal, something broader and collective. It explores the strangeness of relationships – its brittle fragility and shocking permanence, the horrible tangle of egoism and self-sacrifice, the toughness of renewed beginnings and the undeterrable instinct of love. Flaws aside, it’s a film that makes the world seem a little brighter, a little richer, a little more dear.
Minari will be showing in Australian cinemas from February 18, 2021.
Valerie Ng is a sort of writer based in mostly Melbourne, studying something completely unrelated to film. She’s also a managing editor for Rough Cut and her words appear very sporadically on other sites and on @valerieing.