Although I was surprised at the number of Oscar nominations this film received, I think I should n’t have been. Written and directed by Lee Isaac Chung, “Minari” is an enjoyable, family drama – what is often called “heartwarming” – about a young family from South Korea who go to Arkansas to start a vegetable farm. The husband, Jacob, played by Steven Yeun, was fed up with their life in California – he and his wife had jobs in a hatchery plant separating baby chickens by sex – and Jacob thought it was time to start his own business. The wife, Monica, played by Han Ye-ri, takes an immediate dislike to their new house, and is increasingly stressed over the difficulties of starting all over again in an unfamiliar place. Learning English is hard, so the family speaks mostly in Korean; it is a subtitled film. She also worries about the two children, a girl, Anna, age ten, played by Noel Kate Cho, but especially about the boy, David, seven, played by Alan Kim, who has a weak heart.
Chung has structured the film so that three separate themes are advanced. The first is farming, including elements familiar to moviegoers: the joy and drudgery of labor on the land, the search for water, harvesting the crops, the uncertainty of the weather. Jacob gets a hired hand, an elderly war vet, nicely played by Will Patton, who seems delighted to be given the chance to work hard again. These scenes are sketchy and undramatic, but provide pleasant variety.
A second theme is Monica’s doubts about the entire farming venture, including her loss of confidence in Jacob’s judgment. She feels, for the first time, that her feelings and opinions didn’t matter to him any more. Monica struggles with these thoughts, but often chooses not to bring them up. Instead, the family makes nervous forays into the community to try to fit in. For instance, we see them attending the neighborhood church, where David makes friends with a local boy.
All of this proceeds at a leisurely pace, helped enormously by quietly sincere performances from an appealing cast, as well as an evocative score by Emile Mosseri, sparely used, with a subtly Asian flavor. But, as becomes increasingly clear, the slam-dunk of the whole film is seven-year old David, who is irresistible, and Grandma Soon-ja, Joanne’s mother, played by Youn Yuh-jung. She has come over from Korea to live with them. Alan Kim as David is a smile-inducer just looking into the camera, but his alternately hostile, yet eventually empathetic relationship with the old woman makes for a bubbling brew of delight that stays with you long afterwards. Wide-eyed and curious, David rejects her emphatically at first. “You’re not a real grandma!”, he tells her. And we can understand why he’s upset. Who ever heard of a grandma who curses like that, watches pro wrestling and steals from the church collection plate? Later, when she is desperately ill, the scared child mumbles by her bedside that she caused it herself by coming over from Korea.
The film’s climax is a terrible fire on the farm, thrillingly filmed, which leads to a melodramatic, and rather simplified, resolution to all of its themes. The fire also serves to resolve the rift between Monica and Jacob, which had finally surfaced in a furious confrontation late in the film. In fact, the argument reveals such deep-seated hostility from Monica, that it puts the entire narrative out of balance.
This bothered me, because the fire, and its truncated aftermath, did not seem dramatically sufficient to overcome Monica’s resentment of her husband. The ending is so understated, and sketchy, that at first I didn’t think the film was over. Apparently, Chung felt it was enough to see Monica join her husband in his heroic, but ultimately futile efforts. But, despite the glowing reviews, it was not satisfying to me.
Finally, the title of the film refers to the weed-like vegetable that Soon-ja grows in the nearby pond. She had told David it can grow anywhere, survive without tending and is very, very useful. The last scene has Jacob going with David to the minari patch, remarking about how well it’s doing. We are meant to associate this odd, durable but useful form of life as a symbol of what it can be like for immigrants to come to America. It will be a struggle, but you will become part of the land. It seems an appropriately uplifting sentiment.