(Glasgow Film Festival: Film At Home; Wed 24 Feb to Sat 27 Feb)
It’s 'The 1980s', and David (Alan S. Kim), a seven-year-old 'Korean American' boy, is faced with new surroundings and a different way of life when his father, Jacob (Steven Yeun), moves their family from 'The West Coast' to rural 'Arkansas' in search of their own 'American Dream'. David and his sister Anne (Noel Cho) have mixed feelings about this move; at first excited by their new mobile home, they soon grow bored being in a backwater. His wife, Monica (Yeri Han), is aghast that they live in a mobile home in the middle of nowhere, and naughty little David and Anne are bored and aimless. When his sly, equally mischievous grandmother Soonja (Youn Yuh-jung) arrives from 'Korea' to live with them, her unfamiliar ways arouse David’s curiosity. The arrival of their foul-mouthed, but incredibly loving grandmother brings new energy to the family dynamic, but Jacob’s determination to make it as a successful farmer throws the family’s finances, and it's relationships Meanwhile, Jacob, hell-bent on creating a farm on untapped soil, throws their finances, his marriage, and the stability of the family into jeopardy. Amidst the instability and challenges of this new life in the rugged 'Ozarks', "Minari" shows the undeniable resilience of family and what really makes a home.
It all begins as recent 'Korean' arrival Jacob whisks his family from 'California' to 'Arkansas', determined to carve out the rugged independence of farm life, even if it's one on shaky ground in 'The US' of 'The 1980s'. While Jacob sees Arkansas as a land of opportunity, the rest of his clan is flummoxed by their unforeseen move to a new life on a pint-sized piece of land in the far-flung 'Ozarks'. But it's two unlikely family members at opposite ends of the spectrum, wide-eyed, unruly seven-year-old David; and his equally defiant, just-off- the-plane-from-'Korea' grandma Soonja, who start to forge the family’s new path. In the midst of profound change, they clash at first, but soon discover the imperfect but magical bonds that root the family to their past as they reach towards the future. Jacob takes deep pride in his self-reliance while his wife Monica pragmatically tries to keep family life intact amid the chaos Jacob has whipped up with the move. Oldest sister Anne rapidly gains savvy and responsibility as she's handed big, unasked-for responsibilities, while David mischievously tries to repel his newly arrived grandmother Soonja, who upends the fragile peace with her foul-mouthed but perceptive commentary. Then there’s the humor and humanity of Jacob’s employee Paul (Will Patton), a fervent 'Pentecostal' in a perpetual state of repentance. He has a more unusual vision for his life. You root for Jacob because he’s doing this terribly risky thing, taking his family to this crazy place without even consulting them and putting them on the edge of disaster. You could easily despise this guy and not trust him at all. We've to understand of what it’s like to be Jacob, to be thirtysomething and to have kids relying on you but also have this fire to pursue your own ideas of success and happiness. Jacob holds firm to the idea that ultimately David and Anne will benefit from his dream, once the dust settles. But while Jacob’s wife Monica admires his aspirations, that doesn’t mean she can easily embrace life in an 'Arkansas' trailer in the middle of nowhere. She’s anxious about the family’s isolation, and about where her own life and marriage goes from here; even as she transforms their trailer into a place that increasingly feels like home.
As "Minari" builds, David witnesses his father’s dream waver on the edge of absurdity, then near catastrophe as it seems the family’s future might literally go up in smoke. David offers an impish, joyful way into complicated memories, but he also offered something else, that open, awed-by-it-all spirit that can illuminate the beautiful strangeness of life. With his lack of language for what it means to be an immigrant, David becomes a conduit for the feeling of an entire unmoored family trying to find their bearings. Conjuring David’s boyish exuberance, angst, and cheekiness is a particular revelation, merging the child and parent within him. There’s a dance going on where David is a creation of two opposing things; out inner memories of being scared, excited, and curious as a kid. An important part of Anne’s character is that she’s serious about caring for the people she loves, There are so many little moments, like when Jacob’s digging the well and David’s sits there looking bored.
The film’s momentum completely opens up when Soonja arrives. She’s vulgar and has a wicked sense of humor, but what we find interesting is that quite often salvation comes from someone like that. Somehow, she might embody ideals of tolerance and love more than anyone. For all the tumultuous changes in David’s life, nothing sets off more sparks than the arrival of Soonja, who, much to David’s abject horror, moves into his bedroom, making them instant rivals. To David, Soonja can’t possibly be a real grandmother. She certainly doesn’t bake cookies or tenderly dote. She smells weird, gets a kick out of teasing him, and is as foul-mouthed as anyone he’s met. Nevertheless, in ways David cannot immediately see, he and Soonja share much in common; both are spirited rebels, both are physically vulnerable, and both are linchpins of the family, with Soonja connecting them to where they’ve come from just as David points to an unseen future. And when David pulls a boyish prank on Soonja, hoping that will make her go away, it instead binds them closer as David realizes Soonja understands him better than he could have known.
Salvation is more directly sought by the family’s invaluable neighbor, who lends Jacob the help he needs to tend to his crops. This is Paul, a completely committed 'Pentecostal$ who speaks in tongues but doesn’t say much about the reasons he's driven to make so many amends. Even as the ferocity of Paul’s faith is a mystery and at times an affront to Jacob, no one in David’s family can quite shake the strange, poignant beauty of Paul’s kindness to them. The film uses the intensity of Paul’s belief as a means to reveal who he's as a person. Paul is always an important character. The companionship he finds with Jacob speaks to how two people can come from entirely different backgrounds, yet find a closeness rooted simply in shared work. Like Jacob, Paul’s a man living in the gaps. He's alone, misunderstood, and burdened. Jacob relates to that intrinsically, even if he sees himself as a man who believes only in science and hard work. They both have their beliefs, but at core, they’re just two lonely dudes trying to do their thing, which is their connection. Jacob and Paul discover they can simply be themselves.
As 'The Arkansas Dream' threatens to dry up and upend each member of the family, the film explores how a family navigates not only the very specific dilemmas of assimilating into rural America but also broader questions of elemental humanity, the gaps we all wrestle with between family ties and independence, faith and skepticism, feeling like an outsider and yearning to belong. Though each character has their own comic plight, there's no judgement or satire. Too often you see people in American films speaking English who would not in their real lives. But the more authentically a film depicts the details of how people really live, the more meaningful it's. There’s a dissonance to speaking 'Korean' at home that you can’t get at any other way. Two human beings trying to exist together is difficult enough, but when you add the pressure that they’re under there are going to be cracks.
Just as working his own patch of land is the lure for David’s father to head for Arkansas, so too is the power of the land woven throughout "Minari". This family might speak 'Korean', but their fates are as tied to the potential and peril in 'The American' soil as the characters in John Ford’s "Grapes Of Wrath", George Stevens’ "Giant", William Wyler’s "Big Country", or Terrence Malick’s "Days Of Heaven". There’s a constant level of risk in farming that so few movies let you feel. Named for a peppery 'Korean' herb that thrives best in it's second season, "Minari" is a tender, funny, evocative ode to how one generation of a family risks everything to plant the dreams of the next. The film unspools with all the vividness of a lived memory. While in it's basic outlines "Minari" might seem to be a story we know; a tale of immigrants making a go at their own vision of 'The American Dream; the film brings a fresh and illuminating take. For within the film’s at once playful, powerful, and candidly detailed family remembrances comes a larger story: the impact of the journey on a new generation of young 'Americans'.
It's a deeply personal immersion into reconciling two worlds, with boundless affection for both. There’s so much more drawing us together as human beings than the superficial categories we have created. For some, "Minari" might be a chance to see a 'Korean American' finally telling the story, but we've find these characters mean just as much to people from 'Arkansas', or from 'New York', or anywhere. Loving people is a lot of work, and things will go awry at times, but at the end of the day you have that love and it’s real and so meaningful. All people have their masks, all people have their triumphs and their failings.