“Remember what we said when we got married? That we’d go to America and save each other. Instead all we do is fight” admits the failing patriarch at the centre of Lee Isaac Chung’s touching semi-autobiographical family drama Minari (미나리). Less a treatise on the elusiveness of the American Dream or the immigrant experience, Chung’s primary preoccupation is with the family itself seen partly through the eyes of the young David but also with the hindsight of adulthood in reconsidering the frustrated hopes and dreams of his parents as they find themselves divided not only by the fear and loneliness of trying to build a life in another country but by stubborn male pride and conflicting desires.
The Yi family arrive for their new life in convoy, patriarch Jacob (Steven Yeun) leading in front driving a removal van and mother Monica (Han Ye-ri) following behind driving the family car with daughter Anne (Noel Kate Cho) in the passenger seat and son David (Alan Kim) in the back. Pulling up into the huge empty field to find a rundown trailer home which doesn’t even have steps up to the door, Monica is non-plussed. “This is not what you promised” she admonishes her husband with a force that suggests it isn’t the first time he’s disappointed her. Jacob, however, believes he’s found the new Garden of Eden, intending to root his family in the “best dirt in America”. His big dream is to plug a gap in the market by farming Korean fruit and veg to sell to the ever expanding diaspora community.
Monica meanwhile is unconvinced, more concerned with immediate matters of practicality wondering if it’s really wise to have brought their son who has a heart condition out into the virtual wilderness an hour away from the nearest hospital. While making progress on the farm, the couple make ends meet with the same job they were doing back in California, sexing chickens, at which Jacob is apparently a dab hand while Monica struggles but is told that her efficiency is “good enough” for Arkansas. While he dreams, she concentrates on getting better at the job believing that if sexing chickens for the rest of her life is all there is it’s fine as long as its feeds their family. But Jacob remains stubbornly obsessed with making the farm a success no matter what it costs. Male chicks get discarded because in the end they have little use, they don’t taste good and they don’t lay eggs. “They need to see me succeed at something” he eventually tells his wife of the children even as she considers leaving him, too obsessed with his sense of male pride to admit the idea of failure. The last man who tried to farm his land apparently felt much the same, eventually taking his own life rather than live with the humiliation when the farm failed.
“We can’t save each other” Monica concludes, realising that Jacob has chosen the farm or more accurately himself and his pride over their family and that she alone is in that sense shouldering the burden of their shared endeavour. Believing that his wife is most likely lonely, Jacob consents to inviting her mother to live with them (apparently a frequent source of their arguments), grandma Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung) remembering a sentimental love song that they’d liked when they were first married but like the love itself have apparently forgotten. Her presence at first disrupts and then perhaps heals the fracturing family through an injection of Koreanness, her “foreignness” thoroughly alienating youngest son David who is forced to share a room with her but complains that she “smells like Korea” and refuses to drink the traditional herbal concoction she prepares for him. She doesn’t fit his Americanised image of the traditional “grandma” as a warm and cuddly woman who bakes cookies and tells stories. Direct if not severe, Soon-ja plays cards, swears liberally, and wears men’s underwear while enthusiastically watching the wrestling on television. David only begins to warm to her when she takes his side against his authoritarian father even though he’d played a rather cruel trick on her.
Nevertheless it’s grandma who perhaps saves the family in the end, planting her minari seeds from Korea at a nearby creek, explaining that they grow best wild and are a versatile source of sustenance for anyone and everyone. Mother and father do in fact save each other, quite literally, as Jacob finally chooses his wife over his farm while little David’s condition unexpectedly improves, the hole in his heart beginning to repair itself even as his family faces greater strain. A tender tale of familial, cultural, and emotional integration Minari eventually finds peace and comfort in the resilience of the family unit held together by a grandmother’s foresight and the rediscovery of a long buried love.
Minari is available to stream in the UK from 2nd April courtesy of Altitude Films.