Minari Lee Issac Chung (US: 2020) Steven Yeun; Han Ye-re,Youn Yuh-jung
Viewed: 28 March 21 BFI streamed
metaphysics of overcoming
Set in the early 1980’s Chung’s bucolic ramble is a feelgood type of product that documents the theme of overcoming. Unlike most movies these days it represents affirms and endorses the American Dream. This ‘Dream’ is the ideal that whatever your birth status, whatever your ethnicity, if you believe in yourself and your ambition, if you work hard and tirelessly to achieve it, America makes it possible for you to overcome all obstacles and succeed.
I presume the movie is called Minari to encapsulate the immigrant success story theme. It’s a metaphor for the success of transplanted life forms. Minari is a Korean watercress type plant. Grandma carried some specimens of this plant from Korea which she plants by a creek on the Yi plot to see if it will grow. And Lo! After the fire that has destroyed Jacob Yi’s first years crop, Jacob wanders down to the creek and finds the Minari has taken root and flourished, it has gone forth and multiplied, sending out a message of hope and perseverance to the whole family enterprise. At this point it is best not to dwell on the invasive problems that can arise with imported species but that’s another story, a downbeat rather than an upbeat one.
Despite its subplot of their young son having a heart condition, which plays out on the ‘cute’ factor, the script is worthy, correct but predictable in its direction of development. The attempts to build tension into the proceedings are addressed in two ways: the introduction of variegated unconventional characters and the relations between the Yi’s.
The unconventional characters are drawn from the Hollywood stockpot of film drama stereotypes. We have in Minari, the straight-talking abrasive granny from back home untrammelled by the fears and inhibitions of the assimilating family; and there is introduction of a couple of full on Americana characters drawn from the substrate of weirdness in Cohn Brothers scripts. One of whose role, with his mangling of religious fundamentalism and the soil, is not to be dangerous but to attest to the tolerance of the Yi’s in their dealing with the local people. Perhaps as Koreans the Yi’s are all too familiar with the outer wild fringes of the Christian religion. But these American characters are kept well under control by Chung’s script, and the employment of these character tropes plays out as little more than baubles decorating the film’s structure.
The other source of tension in Chung’s script, is the relationship between the Yi’s. Monica is never convinced by the move from California to rural Arkansas. The self sufficient farming life is Jacob’s dream project. Nevertheless she goes along with it, only to become increasingly disenchanted by the realities of both farming and the isolated nature of rural life itself. But their marital discord on this point never feels convincing rather it plays out like a carefully plotted script line. There is a managed deliberation in the manner in which their separate realities provoke Monica and Jacob to want to make different life choices. What is lacking is an organic, psychic emotional strata at the core of their conflict. The mechanical aspect of their marriage is seen in the ‘Conversion of Monica’ This takes place at the end of the film in the resolved ‘happy ending’ to Minari. After the disaster of losing the harvest to fire, Monica sees that staying put, being resilient and believing in Jacob’s dream is the way forward. She is suddenly ‘happy’ in Arkansas. She is converted and so Minari ends on a high note of integration.
In the name of ‘authenticity’ much of the film’s dialogue is in Korean. We know the Yi’s are first generation immigrants but in ‘Minari’ language functions as a token sign of the ‘otherness’ of the Yi’s, allowing the scenario to otherwise evidence their conformity and integration into American way of life. When we see Scorsese’s Italian families in New York, they speak English, but their life styles, their attitudes are Italian. They are Italians and they don’t have to speak Italian for us to understand this. The Yi’s on the other hand seem to have come right out of some Los Angeles suburb, to the extent that it is their suburban nature rather than their Korean nature that they have to adapt and bend to rural life. Minari is a suburban epic rather than an immigrant odyssey.
Chung’s film feels like a contemporary equivilent of the Soviet or Chinese propaganda films featuring young couples venturing forth into the hinterlands to till the soil. They come to the land; there is much is strange and unfamiliar, there are many obstacles to overcome and they have to get to know the local people. But with the correct ideology, the dream, they overcome all obstacles.