If you want your dreams to succeed, don’t invite Grandma.
This is not the official tagline of Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari, which this evening opened the Glasgow Film Festival 2021, but it is certainly a warning. The appearance of mum’s mum Soonja (Yuh-jung Youn) certainly doesn’t make the Yi family’s life on their new Arkansas farm easier. Indeed, ghosting around annoying the children and reminding the parents they were happier in Korea are not even the worst thing she achieves before the two hours are done.
Set in the 1980s, Minari is not actually a tale of a problematic relative, and indeed Soonja has redeeming qualities. Instead the heart of the film resides in the stresses of maintaining a marriage and family in a distant land when dreams become hard work. Korean parents-of-two Jacob and Monica (Steven Yuen and Yeri Han) have already seen their 1980s American Dream struggle in California, where they were employed sexing chickens and raised their children a tiny house. When Jacob foresees a better life in the open spaces of Arkansas, free and farming the land, he drags his wife, eldest daughter Anne, and sickly son David to a plot of land in the middle of nowhere. This is where Minari’s story starts.
With a family set up and bucolic setting, the greatest successes of Chung’s film lie in its characters’ interactions and small personal goals. For instance, Jacob’s new love of tractors and veg makes Monica believe him both a dreamer and an idiot, a judgement well revealed as she oscillates between being a supportive wife and vocally dismissive.
Meanwhile children Anne and David are far more Americanised, and almost plastic in adapting to their new surroundings, but David’s heart issue means Monica smothers him despite their geographic isolation. Inviting Soonja stems from believable concerns over child-minding and loneliness. In short, Minari’s characters are easy to empathise with, and one can cheer for Jacob’s dream while accepting Monica’s concerns.
Dramatic moments in Minari are for the most part burdens and pressures, rather than crises. Some of these are related to farming, such as possessing enough water for a house and fields. Others relate to being an outsider, and here the movie excels. Whereas many films would make the local community drooling racists, the fate of the Yis is far more realistic: they simply don’t know anybody. Indeed, most of the film has elapsed before the Yis decide to proactively join the community, having instead preferred to bring Grandma all the way from Korea. Integration is a difficult subject, and relies heavily on confidence that the Yi parents evidently don’t naturally possess in the US.
The one friend Jacob does make is neighbour, Paul (Will Patton), one source of Minari’s occasional light comedy. That good-hearted Paul is also a religious nutter raises questions about whether you leave your kids with him and what to do when, alone in a field, he starts screaming for Jesus. Whilst the film is certainly more a drama than a laugh, the oddball nature of Jacob’s friend mirrors that of Monica’s unabashed mum. How to react when Grandma tells your bed-wetting son’s new church buddy ‘he ding dong broken’ is never answered.
Overall, Minari is a film built on heart, relationships, and the realistic hardship of pursuing a dream. It is gentle, personal, but never boring, elevating aspects related to finding and building new homes. Its subject matter might limit its audience figures, but it is worth seeking out.
Minari made its UK premiere as the opening film of the Glasgow Film Festival 2021, 24th February 2021
Minari is available to watch at Glasgow Film At Home for 72 hours from 7pm on 24th February