Sunday, June 23, 2024

‘Minari’ Explores the Roots of Family

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Minari is a strangely distanced yet intimate melancholic movie about hope and sadness intertwined in a stirring and bittersweet epoch. Though that may be what the film is about, it is how it goes about telling the story that makes it so sweeping. Intensely intimate, the film keeps itself distanced from its characters, seeking understanding rather than judgment.

Lee Isaac Chung’s film, which he also wrote, is about a small Korean family who moves from California to a small town in Arkansas. Part of the tightrope act that Chung walks is how the film is steeped in specifics but also leaves much of the specifics unexplored and unsaid. Minari is about people and their relationships with each other and the world around them.

Jacob Yi (Steven Yeun) has uprooted his family and moved them from the West Coast to a small plot of land an hour’s drive from the nearest city. His wife Monica (Han Ye-ri) is less than ecstatic when she sees their new home, a mobile trailer, elevated by bricks, in the middle of nowhere. She’s worried because their youngest son David (Alan S. Kim), has a heart murmur, and she fears they are too far away should anything happen. Their daughter Anne (Noel Kate Cho) doesn’t know what to think.

The name of the town, what year it is, or even where in Korea Jacob and Monica immigrated from are never known. All Chung gives us are hints. When Jacob goes to the bank, with David tagging along, to get a loan for the farm he hopes to start. The banker mentions in passing that Regan has a new farming program for people like Jacob. I suspect Chung gives us so little information simply because it doesn’t matter.

Jacob’s dream is to have a fifty-acre farm. A dream Monica doesn’t fully support and wonders if they shouldn’t concentrate more on their day jobs. The two work at a chicken hatchery as chicken sexers. They check the chicks to see which sex they are before separating them into different cages because “male chickens don’t taste as good.” 

Chung is less interested in the time and place than the people inhabiting it. We learn all that we need from the conversations they have with each other. What is remarkable is how much love Chung has for his characters. He observes them and with a cold, detached eye while also feeling their pain.

Monica is a devout Christian; what denomination or even church she belongs to is unknown. However, it seems to be a church similar to that of Paul’s (Will Patton). Paul, a local who Jacob hires to start his farm, lapse into speaking tongues while spending his Sunday dragging a cross down the road instead of going to church. 

Jacob and Monica respond to Paul in different ways. Jacob, a pragmatic man who shuns superstition politely, humors him. On the other hand, Monica invites Paul to bless their trailer and see if any evil spirits may be present. Monica and Paul don’t necessarily share the same faith, but their view of how the world works is in perfect sync. 

The couple’s marriage, riddled with stress cracks fused by time and love, is not an easy relationship. Even when it appears their marriage is so brittle it threatens to crack, we can sense a more profound connection, even if they can’t. Yeun and Ye-ri convey much with looks, but it’s how they stand next to each other and sit apart that speaks volumes. 

Minari ponders it’s characters and lets us experience their joys and sorrows, of which there are many. It is not a feel-good movie, but it is also not a bleak film filled with nastiness. Chung sprinkles the story with hardships and minor miracles.

Chung has a keen eye for the little details in life. Take, for example, when the Yis go to church. The organist plays the hymn “This is our Story.” It is a hymn that I know well from my childhood, going to church, but it is a hymn that is hardly ever played in films. Or the way that little kids can casually say immensely hurtful things without realizing it and then moving past it to become the best of friends.

One scene includes Anne approached by a young white girl. The girl asks Anne if she speaks Korean. When Anne says yes, the girl replies, “Stop me if I say something in Korean.” She then proceeds to speak a string of what sounds like gibberish. 

Anne, however, stands there and stops her when she gets to “Cho”. What the little girl said is deeply offensive. But they are children and have little understanding of what is or isn’t the right thing to say.

The same goes for David, who constantly tells his newly arrived grandma, Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jun), that she is “a bad grandma”. To be fair to David, she is unlike most grandmas he knows. She’s snarky, independent, and doesn’t know how to bake cookies. Mine were the same way.

Minari doesn’t focus on just one relationship. Chung is fascinated by the many different people in the Yi’s sphere and wishes to spend time with all of them. However, it does feel as if Anne gets short shrift. The film doesn’t ignore Anne, but she is the one who is the least explored.

However, it is impossible not to be drawn into the wildly contentious but profoundly loving relationship between Soon-ja and the young David. The little boy does not like her initially and resents having to share his room with her.

At one point, he tricks her into drinking his urine simply because he is annoyed. Monica and Jacob punish the boy. But Soon-ja stands nearby begging the parents to forget about it. She understands that David is merely a boy and what he needs is not discipline but love.

Their relationship grows in fits and starts. Until one night, he confides in her that he is afraid of death. His mother’s fervent religious beliefs worry him, and David is worried that because he has prayed to see heaven, as instructed, he will be forced to see it before he wants to. Young Alan S. Kim is remarkable in these moments, as is Yuh-jung as she cuddles and comforts him.

Chung’s direction is deft and light as he and Lachlan Milne frame the story as if it is a half-remembered memory. There is no narrator, though; at times, Milne’s camera feels as such, as it sits back and watches the Yis as they struggle to farm the earth or deal with their day jobs as chicken sexers. Chung and Milne treat the camera’s eye like an invisible intimate observer.

Underlined by Emile Mosseri’s discordant score, Minari has a way of luxuriating in a character’s mood. Oftentimes the film gazes into the lush and gorgeous Arkansas landscape as characters ponder their thoughts. Mosseri’s score seems at first at odds with the feel, but the clash of tones winds up working because the music, much like Chung, is ultimately contemplative.

I couldn’t help but think of Rahmin Bahrani, an Iranian-American director whose films such as Goodbye Solo and Chop Shop look at American life through the uniquely immigrant experience. His movies, much like Chung’s Minari, endeavor to tell the story about Americans struggling to not merely climb out of the working class but simply to survive and find some modicum of happiness. 

Minari is teeming with immense warmth and humanity, which tempers the sadness of the tragedies that strike the Yis. But, thankfully, Chung allows for moments of overcoming life’s obstacles, great and small. The final shot is a perfect embodiment of the film itself, wistful yet hopeful.

Image courtesy of A24

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