At the heart of the mythology of the American frontier is a family—struggling, in relative isolation but cooperatively—to wrest a living, and a life, from the forbidding environment of the Great Plains. A deeply committed and bonded couple, playing their gendered roles to perfection, are its key element: a man, alone outside, plowing the field, chopping wood for the fireplace or cutting poles for fencing; a woman, inside, cooking and cleaning and making a home, watching with admiration as her husband goes about his work, even joining him in the field; children, doing their chores in good cheer; and, at critical junctures—raising the barn—a helpful and social community coming together.
That’s the myth being explored and critiqued in “Minari,” here transposed from the plains of Kansas and Nebraska to the fertile soil of rural Arkansas, where Director Lee Isaac Chung grew up; from Willa Cather’s 19th century to Reagan’s 1980s; and from the mostly white migrants of the past to the Korean family that centers this film. In a reversal of the standard American migratory pattern, Jacob, his wife Monica, and their two children are moving West to East, Mom and Dad fleeing from a difficult life in Korea to a dead-end existence in California, then, with the kids, from California to 50 acres of farmland outside the small town of Rogers, Arkansas. They arrive with some savings, and with factory work at a hatchery—“chicken sexing” (sorting the female chicks from the male chicks, who will be “discarded”)—jobs that pay the bills but offer no inherent satisfaction and no upward mobility.
From the first scene, it’s clear that Jacob (Steven Yeun, of “The Walking Dead” TV fame) and Monica (Yeri Han) bear no resemblance to the idealized frontier couple of Western lore, personified by Joe and Marian Starrett, who anchor “Shane” (film, 1953). Not only is the couple Asian (though their Korean heritage is not a factor; they are not portrayed as victims of social or economic discrimination), but they argue frequently and heatedly, and about life choices that matter. An optimist who is deeply independent and individualistic, Jacob believes his 50 acres—planted in Korean vegetables—will yield the success he craves, escape from chicken sexing, some version of the American dream—and he’s willing to accept the isolation and inevitable contingencies of farm life, including tornadoes, water shortages, and other Job-like visitations.
Jacob, whom Yeun plays with a quiet intensity, views his unrelenting focus on his crops as, in the words of another character, “what a man has to do.” He explains to his son, David (Alan S. Kim, an engaging child actor in his debut), a 7-year-old with a heart problem, that the male chicks are killed because they are useless. “So,” he tells David, “you and I have to be strong.”
Negative and dour from the moment she sees the trailer they will live in (“we’re not staying long”), Monica doesn’t share Jacob’s positive outlook, his ability to go forward despite setbacks, his male drive and persistence, or his dream. Although her work as a homemaker is perfunctory (pasta sauce from a can), she values family over pecuniary success, even when events finally appear to have turned their way. “Minari” also interrogates the idea of faith: his faith in himself and science, her faith in Christianity (even in exorcism) and in a social church that would mitigate her aloneness. This is a damaged couple, their intense love a faint memory, two people with different ideas of the good life and with no way of talking productively in an effort to find common ground.
The script focuses excessively on scene-stealing Grandma, Monica’s mother (Esther Moon), who arrives from Korea with anchovies, chili powder, and a surfeit of humor and resilience that for some will be a welcome relief from the acrimony of the parents, bringing joy to a house where it’s been beaten out of the adults. Although there to help with the kids (an older child has no distinctive role) and to bring companionship to her daughter Monica, Grandma’s presence over time creates a sort of “family” alliance—Grandma, Monica, and young David—that excludes Jacob and deepens the divide between husband and wife. Grandma also has the function of making David into a real character, even as he claims she’s “not a real grandma” because she doesn’t cook, bake cookies or smell nice.
Endings can be tricky, and this one is disappointing in doing too much to reconcile real differences and suture long-standing wounds.
Endings can be tricky, and this one is disappointing in doing too much to reconcile real differences and suture long-standing wounds. In less than 10 minutes, viewers are subjected to good news (on the health front), more good news (on the vegetable front), and an accident that produces a great tragedy from which it would seem impossible to recover. And then, in the penultimate scene, Jacob and Monica will somehow find a space to share—a space of faith—as they follow and embrace Dowsing Dan—and his divining rod.
Director: Lee Isaac Chung
Starring: Steven Yeun, Yeri Han, Alan S. Kim, Esther Moon
Country: US, even though voluntarily (and controversially) submitted to the Golden Globes Foreign Language Film category
Languages: English and Korean (the latter subtitled in English)
Other Awards: Nominated for Golden Globes Best Foreign Language Film; another 65 wins and 156 nominations to date
Runtime: 115 minutes