DECENT, MOVIES

“MINARI” UNDERSTANDS THE GRUELING PARTS OF POVERTY

cabbage growing on agricultural field: representing the family farm in Minari
Photo: Maria Orlova

The most grounding element of Minari is how it makes sense of hunger and a cry for security.

In this social media age, it’s easy to get lost in an online universe where it seems nearly everyone has their life together and has stumbled on the ingredients needed to sustain happiness. Most of the people you’ll see have amassed a huge following after several years of doing unpaid work and many are only now enjoying the merits of their efforts. Some are much luckier; those people who were able to convince the public of their worth with one viral video or speech. But the general idea is, if you go on social media long enough as a matter of routine, it sucks you into a void that makes it impossible to do anything but compare and covet the success and picture-perfect standards that have been curated in your feed. Sometimes it takes reality, a normal life outside of online living, and lots of faith in your own prosperous future, to remind you of the ordinary, cherishable parts of life that allows for the possibility of anything, good or bad. Sometimes though, that reminder can come in the form of a movie like Minari.

The 2020 semi-autobiography film written and directed by Lee Isaac Chung, draws from his childhood in the 80s. Following a South Korean family of four in rural Arkansas, Minari is about their venture on a hopeful farming business that is meant to finally secure them financial stability. Jacob (Steven Yeun), the patriarch, leads the family on his ambition to grow Korean produce for vendors in Dallas and for new immigrants to the states, on the hunch that when more South Korean immigrants moves to United States, those in search of a taste from home, would make the farm profitable. While Jacob’s wife Monica (Yeri Han) is less convinced about this new business venture and more concerned about how their change in environment would affect their two children David (Alan S. Kim), and Anne (Noel Cho), she feels almost silenced into following along with his dreams. The entire film, is basically a meditation on Jacob’s faith in the success of his ambitions and the point where his desires transition from an idea to a salient action with impact.

Through Minari, Chung is very thoughtful and moving with his subtle but dazzling alignment of comedy and realism. The introduction of Monica’s mother Soonja (Youn Yuh-jung) and Jacob’s farming aide Paul (Will Patton), serve to add a dash of sobering dark comedy to the film. Just as well, the dynamic between David and his grandmother is very heartwarming and enjoyable to watch. But probably the most grounding element of Minari is how it makes sense of hunger and the desperate, wanting cry for security that Jacob generates with his presence. Jacob is representative of the pressures of adulthood that hinges on a nebulous path to gain success, one that often has people incorrectly believing that we live in a meritocracy where the amount of work and value you put into a venture will be returned to you doubled or even tripled. Instead, his struggle is made porous and unbearable to watch, often mimicking the experience of watching a self-destructive character like a Walter White type, except of course, slightly muted and obviously, devoid of malice.

Even more, the film heavily considers the idea of luck and how its invisible existence is imperative to a life of ease whether its perceptive to its recipient or not. It understands that whether you notice your good fortune is besides the point because when you don’t have luck, like Jacob, you feel it as it permeates beyond you. Naturally, Jacob’s family is made to suffer largely because of his bad decisions and his obsession to realize the American dream but also, and mainly, because he’s really unlucky.

A lot of people have found Minari to be a very heartwarming film about the difficulties of immigrant life and finding a root in a new environment. But it feels more like a calmed approach to understanding the depressive aspects of the natural world, beyond the more embellished inner narrative we house and distract from with money (if you have the means to actually do so). There’s certainly a lot of reasons why people would be overwhelmed by the more positive energy in the film but there is also a touch of sadness knotted in between. Jacob and Monica aren’t exactly wealthy, in fact, so much of what they have been able to build is constructed from a mounting debt. They essentially have the same precarious life as a family who live pay-cheque to pay-cheque but its dimmed down since they have a farm. Yet, this anxiety is strong and especially emphatic in different scenes throughout the film, which is shown very faintly. For example, when Jacob refuses to purchase county water it’s understood that his reasoning comes from the belief that he can momentarily sacrifice his family’s well-being for a future life of comfort. This sinking and familiar sense of despondency, born from destitution, is so gentle, it’s easy to overlook it in favor of the humours references to the outlandish, cheeky parts of the film that mock entrenched American behaviours like the excessive need to remind immigrants of their “othered” placement with conversations about Asian features or cultural practices. Chung shows how delicate these unsettling moments can be and how they can pass without much attention.

Still, this is exactly the genius in Chung’s work. Minari is rich and easy with authentic texture of the immigrant experience but particularly that of the minority one. It’s sentimental on the real issues of destitution, being racialized, even touching on the surrealism and cult-like aspects of Christianity and the adoption of religion in the US, all, without ever burdening audiences with the heaviness of these subjects. It has this straightforward but meek approach to honest storytelling that manages to represent the sour parts of real life but with an abundance of happiness. But it also appeals to the pressure to grind and make something of yourself despite everything, the on-going calls to pursue entrepreneurship and creative pursuits instead of stable 9-5s. It’s about the experience of betting on yourself and crossing your fingers in hopes that everything will work out before your dreams start to infringe on your loved ones.

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