Sunday, August 8, 2021

Putting Down Roots

Films: Minari
Format: DVD from Cortland Public Library on various players

I’ve been mulling over what I want to say about Minari for a little more than a day. It’s not that I didn’t like it; as a matter of fact, I think it’s a lovely movie in many respects. It’s that I genuinely don’t know what I have to say about it. It doesn’t feel like a movie that generates a great deal of conversation in a lot of ways. There are plenty of places where it could generate conversation tuned in a different way, but it is the movie that it.

Minari is the story of the Yi family in the mid-1980s Jacob: (Steven Yeun), Monica (Han Ye-ri), and children Anne (Noel Kate Cho), and David (Alan Kim). David, we learn, has a heart problem, and his parents tell him constantly not to run. We also learn that Jacob and Monica are much happier speaking Korean while Anne and David speak Korean, but also speak English like American natives. The Yis have moved to Arkansas from California. In Arkansas, Monica is able to work as a chicken sexer (she wasn’t fast enough for California). Jacob does the same work, but is really there to start a farm. His goal is to grow Korean vegetables to feed the thousands of Koreans moving to the U.S.

There’s a great deal that we’re going to contend with when it comes to the Yi’s family. Monica is not happy in Arkansas because it is so rural and feels so different from California, where they were, and Korea, where they are both from. Jacob, though, is in love with the land and is convinced that he can make the farm work. He still works as a sexer when he has to to keep money coming in, but it’s the farm that takes up all of his time and thoughts. The problem is the children—with no one to watch them, Monica sends for her mother Soon-ja (Yuh-Jung Youn).

This is what we’re going to spend a great deal of our time with—the family dynamics. David and Soon-ja have trouble getting along, mainly because David feels like she’s not much of a grandmother. Jacob and Monica squabble over the fact that the farm uses all of the water, the cheap mobile home they now live in, and the strange hyper-religious behavior of Paul (Will Patton), who helps Jacob with the farm. Eventually, things come to a head when Jacob seems more concerned with his produce being taken to market than with David’s latest check-up regarding his heart, which causes a schism that could destroy the family.

Minari is named for a Korean vegetable otherwise called water celery, that serves as an allegory for the story. The minari is planted by Soon-ja when she arrives with seeds she brought from Korea. Like herself and Jacob and Monica, the minari is a transplant from Korea that is looking to grow roots in a new place. And that is the story here. For a film that is perhaps 80% or more in Korean, Minari is an extremely American story.

Because of that, it’s an important story, even if it feels like at first I didn’t know what to say about it. We live in a world and a country where racism is still an issue and where a large portion of the country seems to find racist ideas more and more attractive. Not that long ago, Newt Gingrich (why is anyone still listening to him?) commented that immigrants are a threat to “traditional Americans.” Minari is a reminder, or should be a reminder, that there are plenty of immigrants who qualify as traditional Americans in the eyes of anyone who should matter.

This is a film that is absolutely worth seeing. Initially, I was concerned that Han Ye-ri was overlooked come award season, but this is very much Steven Yeun’s movie. He is front and center, and while this is the story of the whole family, it’s more Jacob’s story than anyone’s. That said, Yuh-Jung Youn steals every scene she is in, and was rightly nominated and victorious for the Oscar in a supporting role.

If I have a complaint about Minari, it’s that it doesn’t really seem to conclude as much as it comes to an end. It feels like it ends a chapter of the family’s life, certainly, but it’s more of a stopping place than a conclusion. Honestly, that might eventually be a strength of the movie—it feels like real life, because most of us don’t actually get conclusions, either.

Why to watch Minari: A truly American story.
Why not to watch: It doesn’t so much end as stop.


  1. I hope to see this film as soon as I can as it is something that I hope I can watch with my mother as she might like this as she did like Parasite.

    1. Honestly, the only connection is that both are in Korean. They are vastly different movies in all other ways!