It’s no surprise that Lee Isaac Chung’s film Minari won both the Jury Award and Audience Award in the Dramatic Competition at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. It has the technical and storytelling merits to garner the respect of critics and the heart and humour to connect with audiences.
Minari is reminiscent of classic American farm dramas like Country, The River, and Places in the Heart, all of which were released in 1984 and earned Oscar-nominations for their leading actresses Jessica Lange, Sissy Spacek, and Sally Field (who won the award) respectively, and all shot in middle-America locations correspondingly in Iowa, Tennessee, and Texas.
It is the period-piece Places in the Heart, directed and written by Robert Benton and based on his childhood during the 1930s in Waxahachie, Texas, that is perhaps the most akin to Minari which is based on Chung’s own childhood during the 1980s in rural Arkansas.
Both autobiographical films address the harsh realities of life softened through the reminiscence of the director’s childhood viewpoint. They both feature the lessons and struggles of farming, catastrophic natural disasters (wind and fire), small-town racism, and the community church as a sanctuary and support system. Minari is the Korean-American version of this All-American experience of chasing the American dream.
Consistent with contemporary style and tastes, the storytelling in Minari is more subtle and restrained than the plot-heavy Places in the Heart, which might seem a bit melodramatic by today’s standards, but just as authentically sentimental.
Chung is represented in this film by the seven-year-old boy David, who along with his sister Anne, are transplanted from California to Arkansas when their parents decide to purchase a 50-acre plot of land complete with a dilapidated mobile-home on cinder blocks. The father, Jacob, has a dream to grow Korean vegetables, a niche market that he thinks will pay off since the nearest place to obtain these products is over 6 hours away in Texas. The mother, Monica, is not happy about the move but agrees as long as her mother gets to move in with them from Korea.
When David meets his grandmother Soonja for the first time, he is annoyed by her foreign ways, especially the herbal soup that she makes him drink. But Monica is thrilled when Soonja brings such authentic ingredients from Korea like chili powder and anchovies. She also brings seeds to grow minari (a Korean vegetable) which she plants by the river. The minari is versatile, adaptable, and grows easily, compared to the crops that Jacob struggles to tend while trying to find a supply of groundwater on the property for irrigation.
The culture clash in the film is portrayed with realism and subtlety instead of being sensationalised for dramatic purposes. It’s refreshing that the characters are not stereotypes, the Korean family are not inflexible foreigners, the country folk are not small-minded hillbillies, and the local religious fanatic is not dangerous and threatening. Any racist comments are expressed by children in an innocent display of ignorance. The story relies more on the small observational moments than any big plot points. The humour grows organically out of realistic scenarios and the conflicts are not artificially planted.
While Steven Yeun and Yeri Han garner audience sympathy portraying the young couple whose genuine love and devotion are challenged by the external problems and their own conflicting priorities, it’s the relationship between little David and his grandmother that steals the show.
David, a smart and insolent boy caught between two cultures and afflicted with a heart murmur, is played by Alan S. Kim with the perfect balance of childish curiosity and precocious wisdom. Yuh-Jung Youn plays the easy-going unconventional Grandma Soonja, who is just as non-judgmental of others as she is of herself. She plays the peacemaker between the bickering parents and also intervenes when they are about to punish their son for playing a practical joke on her. Like the flourishing minari that she planted by the river, the grandmother leaves an indelible impact on the family’s lives.
The musical score by Emile Mosseri utilises a vaguely 1980s-era sounding synthesizer, while the cinematography by Lachlan Milne, ACS, beautifully captures the natural light and landscape of Arkansas. While other states like Georgia, Louisiana, and New Mexico offer generous tax credits and other incentives to lure filmmakers to shoot all kinds of films in their locations as a substitute for other places, Arkansas seems to be inspiring filmmakers to purely tell stories that are set in “The Natural State” with a fascination for its authentic local specificity.
After shooting his last three narrative films on location in Rwanda, North Carolina, and New York City, Lee Isaac Chung finally comes home and it’s pure magic.
Main Picture Credit: Actor Alan Kim and director Lee Isaac Chung attend the World Premiere of Minari by Lee Isaac Chung, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. © 2020 Sundance Institute | photo by Miguel Mendoza.