Minari is a bittersweet drama that’s perfect for arthouse fans
Minari is a plant native to East Asia that flourishes on the banks of streams and is known for its bitter and peppery taste. It’s also the title of Lee Isaac Chung’s Oscar-winning drama about a Korean American family who start a fresh produce farm in 1980s Arkansas.
Chung wrote and directed the film, which shares its name with the leafy ingredient found extensively in South Korean cooking. While the plant itself features in his drama, it also serves as a symbol for life and informs the tone of this bittersweet and tender drama.
Chung is the son of Korean immigrants who grew up on a farm in Arkansas before attending Yale, where he majored in ecology. It’s hard not to connect the biographical dots between Chung and the plucky character David. This makes Minari a slice-of-his-life, depicting the hardships of a troubled marriage, the difficulties of childminding and his father’s attempts to fulfil his dream of turning a garden into a full-fledged farm.
Testament to its quiet power and restraint, the gentle drama received six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Actress in a Supporting Role. Continuing in the vein of Parasite’s historical run of firsts for Korea, Yuh-Jung Youn won a coveted golden statuette for her spirited and wry take on a foul-mouthed and unconventional grandmother. In this ensemble drama, there are no weak links, grounding the film with an unquestionable sincerity that further enhances its day-in-the-life attributes.
While the story of an immigrant family is intriguing, tapping into a number of relevant themes for our times, it’s the nuanced performances that make it deeply human and compelling. Starring Steven Yeun, Yeri Han, Yuh-Jung Youn, Will Patton and introducing Alan S Kim, the drama bristles with priceless moments.
Yeun’s expressions speak volumes as a father tries to put on a brave face as Jacob. Han keeps him grounded as Monica, Youn is a free spirit as Soonja, Patton adds live-wire fanatical quirk as Paul while Kim is charm and cheek personified as young David.
Set in the 80s, the wistful film steers away from stonewashed jeans and big hairdos, finding a more balanced and humble retrospective in the vein of Young Sheldon. The production design has a timeless feel, subtle in the way it redresses the past and aiming for more universal appeal. It helps that Minari is set in rural Arkansas among the rugged Ozarks, away from the dated urban centres and free of the invasive technology that defines our current age.
Coming from the A24 stable, it’s no surprise that Minari’s cinematography is in constant pursuit of perfection, creating some artful and vivid frames for this touching family portrait. This sense of beauty and wide open space is reinforced by its warm soundtrack, which vibrates between tender and melancholic climbs as the young family struggle to overcome setbacks without losing their dignity or sense of purpose.
Offering everyday majesty through its shot selection, Studio Ghibli-style sound design, a spiritual dimension and featuring a tender tale of a family trying to settle into a new rural home, it has many similarities with My Neighbour Totoro.
Hayao Miyazaki’s celebrated and iconic 1988 animated feature attempted to mimic reality through its rich audio-visuals. The sound of cicadas is a trademark of Studio Ghibli, suggesting warm and sunny conditions. My Neighbour Totoro’s tied up in Shinto, while Minari’s spiritual element is expressed through an eccentric view of Christianity in Paul. Instead of veering into the realm of fantasy and animism with a giant forest-dwelling rabbit spirit, Minari plants itself in the kitchen-sink realism and pursuit of the American Dream.
Minari also has some parallels with All Saints, a faith drama also based on a true story about a salesman-turned-pastor who tries to rescue his tiny church. Functioning as a modern-day parable, the idea of a farmer sowing his seeds, working against the natural elements and stockpiling his produce ties in with many Biblical allegories.
Expanding the minari metaphor, the drama documents the Yi household’s journey of resilience, exploring family and what binds and roots us. As the family trusts in their own instincts through self-imposed isolation, farming niche produce, overworking and diving headlong into the American Dream, the film’s commentary has universal touch points. Everyone wants to find more balance, spend more time with family, live comfortably and not work so hard.
South Korea is known for their round-the-clock work ethic, where many companies actually foster a normalcy around overworking, even offering sleeping quarters for staff. Minari’s cautionary tale speaks to the same revelations that came about with lockdown, where people realised the simple pleasures of life and found they could live more on less. As Soonja exclaims, “Minari is truly the best. It grows anywhere, like weeds. So anyone can pick and eat it. Rich or poor, anyone can enjoy it and be healthy.”
Chung’s soulful drama deals with some heavy themes around alienation, marriage and childminding. Yet in keeping with its title, it does so without siphoning energy, counterbalancing challenges with lighter moments and a rare optimism. Gravitating from heart-wrenchingly bleak to downright hilarious, Minari encompasses all of life’s struggles and triumphs with a bittersweet sense of humour. Its cinematic purity, gentle ebb-and-flow and meek disposition make it soft and subtle, but its strength is found in its perseverance, tolerance and tenderness.
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