Not long after she arrives at the tiny Arkansas farm to stay with her family, Soonja the grandmother finds the perfect spot along a creek to plant the minari seeds she brought from South Korea. A popular bitter herb – sometimes called water celery – that is used in all sorts of South Korean dishes and sometimes as a health tonic, minari is an easy plant to propagate, as long as it is rooted in damp, boggy soil. It grows fast, gardeners cut it and it continues to grow. It also is an effective natural filter, cleaning the soil and fortifying its nutrients.
In the beautifully told story of Minari, a feature-length narrative by Lee Isaac Chung which has been receiving a lot of enthusiastic audience response in its Sundance premiere, the plant is a perfect, concise, elegant metaphor for the experience of an immigrant family making their mark in their new American roots.
Chung’s narrative is sensitively balanced in exquisite form. The humor that emanates especially from Soonja the grandmother (masterly crafted by Yuh-Jung Youn, one of South Korea’s most acclaimed actors), is posed against the dramatic tensions that emerge in the young family along with the somewhat awkward but well-intentioned encounters the family has with its neighbors.
Jacob (played by Steven Yeun, following up on in his 2018 acclaimed performance in Lee Chang-Dong’s mystery drama film Burning) has moved his family from California to their new home in a trailer in the heart of rural Arkansas. His wife, Monica (an award-winning South Korean dancer and actor Yeri Han making an outstanding debut in an American film), does not pull back her disappointment about leaving California and her anger stirs more than a bit when she discovers that what her husband meant about planting a “big garden” is actually a farm. She is concerned about what it will mean to their two children: Anne (Noel Kate Cho in her first professional acting experience) and David (newcomer Alan Kim). She worries that if David needs immediate medical attention for his condition, the nearest hospital is an hour away. And, Anne takes on big sister responsibilities in watching David while their parents are working.
The story is set in the 1980s, so hence the challenges of turning the land on a farm that already failed prior to the young family’s arrival are intense. Nevertheless, Jacob, confident in his self-reliance, believes he can make a go of it by growing produce for Korean grocers so that it will be more conveniently accessible and customers do not have travel for hours to find the right ingredients for their favorite Korean dishes.
Chung finds the perfect balance in every inflection so that every character and plot element are synthesized without disrupting the flow of the story. The congregation at a local church welcomes the family with awkward curiosity but also with sincerity. David finds a friend who asked him the first time they met, “Why is your face flat?” The most significant example comes with Paul (a solid showing by Will Patton who is known for his roles in Remember the Titans, Armageddon, The Mothman, Prophecies, and No Way Out) whom Jacob hires to help on the farm. Paul is a Pentecostal Christian who speaks in tongues, believes in exorcism and worships on Sunday by carrying a cross on the road. But, Paul’s character is not subjected to the lazy temptation of parody. As with every character in the film, Paul is portrayed with mature depth. He is committed to helping Jacob succeed in his new venture. And, he likes the spice of Monica’s kimchi.
Monica is relieved to have Soonja on the farm. However, David is not pleased. He complains that “she smells like Korea” and that she does not act like a “real grandmother.” He detests the tea made from powdered deer antler that she brought from South Korea as a tonic for his heart murmur condition. She curses, does not know how to cook, like card games and wrestling shows on television. She also enjoys drinking the kids’ favorite drink (Mountain Dew) which she calls “mountain water.” That sets up a prank which begins to change the relationship in a good way between David and his grandmother.
Chung, in his fourth feature film and a 2004 graduate of The University of Utah master’s degree program in film studies, crafted Minari by assembling some 80 visual memories from his own childhood growing up in Arkansas. Some of those memories are reconstructed as he remembered them but they also are blended in naturally with the fictional characters and storyline. In a talkback following a packed screening at Park City’s The MARC Theatre, Chung says the film project started as a way of sharing the legacy of his family with his young daughter.
And, in a time where there is so much perniciousness in contaminating the vital history of the immigrant experience in America, Minari arrives at the right moment to remind that our country can supersede this tone by telling such stories in a beautiful celebration of our collective humanity.