Minari is one of this year’s better Best Picture Oscar nominees. Which is rather damning it with faint praise, but there you go. A tale of noble immigrants (are there any other kind?) facing a hard time of it in rural Arkansas, Lee Isaac Chung’s film boasts the commendable virtue of modesty. It avoids leading the way with any announcement of its own importance, and in its own low-key way, it offers a degree of authenticity the other contenders largely lack. It doesn’t hurt matters either that it’s so perceptively performed.
Perhaps the closest fellow nominee in terms of indie appeal is Sound of Metal, with which it somewhat curiously shares sympathetic Christian characters. But Sound of Metal is highly calculated by comparison, with its gestures towards subjective verisimilitude and familiar protagonist’s journey. Minari benefits from Chung’s attempts to honour his parents’ life story. As a consequence, he avoids sensationalism or extravagant plot developments for the most part. The counter charge is that the picture only ever feels like a minor work, accomplished for what it is but swept up by Oscar’s current inclusive remit and promoted beyond its level.
If the film is punching above its weight, however, Steven Yeun is absolutely deserving of his Best Actor Oscar nomination. I was principally aware of Yeun from The Walking Dead, which I ducked out of at least a season before his character did. I never much cared for Glenn (which isn’t to say his fate was deserved, as the still outraged audience who subsequently swore off the series will attest); he was very much of the beta-male supporting type. Thus, I didn’t take very much note of Yeun’s abilities or range.
Here, though. It isn’t so much the character on paper, although Chung commendably avoids ingraining Jacob Yi as this or that type of father, even as Jacob stubbornly insists on following his farming dream (“This is the best dirt in America” he asserts of their plot). Its’s that Yeun exercises such restraint and intelligence in his choices, such that Jacob becomes nuanced and aware, alert to what his actions and their potential consequences even as he is determined to see them through. Yeun handles the inherited authoritarian/patriarchal side as proficiently as he does the inner turmoil at being undermined.
Monica (Ha Ye-ri) is a more reactive role, the wife reluctant to uproot and so coming into conflict with Jacob. We see her worry over her day job (sexing chickens at a hatchery; the filmmakers don’t neglect the harsh truth of male chicks’ fate, although neither do they dwell on it). Her religious inclinations (Jacob is agnostic at best). Her relationship with her mother Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung).
Mostly, though, it’s her disapproval of Jacob’s choice, and so the one made on behalf of the entire family, that registers. To this end, frustrated by her husband’s remote singlemindedness and convinced returning to California would most benefit the family, matters come to a head in a scene where they agree to separate. Son David (Alan Kim) has just been given a positive prognosis regarding his heart condition, and Jacob has secured a seller for his produce (a sample box of which has been lugging around, even into the examination room). It looks as if, despite their tribulations, things may have turned a corner. But immediately prior to these developments, Jacob has told Monica that, even if she takes the kids to California, and even if it means he fails, he needs to finish what he’s started.
Monica’s position is that Jacob has chosen the farm over the family (“I’ve lost my faith in you. I can’t do this anymore”). It’s at this point that Minari veers off track for me, manoeuvring its characters into position for the climax, rather than allowing their relationship to continue developing organically. The confrontational conversation is precisely timed for maximum manipulation, following the unexpected positive turnaround in fortunes (Jacob is hardly revealing anything new; he has been guilty of this behaviour throughout, be it moving somewhere David cannot get emergency treatment, to choosing a financially precarious lifestyle over a secure one). It probably doesn’t help that the translation of Monica’s confession appears to have been exaggerated (from “I can’t keep holding on anymore just by looking at you. I’m too tired for this”) but it’s nevertheless pitched to feed into the big finale.
Which is wearily manufactured. Grandma Soon-ja, tottering around trying to be useful following her stroke, accidentally sets fire to the barn, stocked full of precious produce. Wouldn’t you know it? Just on the cusp of success/separation! But wait. Jacob, desperate to save his veg, has to get real when Monica is overcome by fumes and help her to safety. True, such crude recalibration might have led to the family returning to Californian chicken sexing. But since it is based on Chung’s own experience as David, the tone becomes more conciliatory. Jacob learns something, employing the water diviner he naysaid at the outset, and Monica is there with him this time. He also picks the minari grandma planted, telling David she chose a really good spot (earlier, he rebuffed Soon-ja’s suggestion of planting the seeds, saying he would think about it).
As a result, the ending is rather pat. To its credit, the picture is much too sensitive for “down with the patriarchy” cheap shots (indeed, it’s moderate in terms of every thematic element, from the presence of racism to the treatment of religion). But still, one wonders how much this memoir reflects the reality of Chung’s father’s developing empathy (one could of course infer other factors in Monica’s decision to remain, such as tradition, expectation and, simply, continued self-sacrifice).
Minari is at is naturalistic best elsewhere, then, in its depiction of the relationship between “bad grandma” Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung, also deservedly Oscar nominated) and David. The latter is offended by her, objecting that “She isn’t like a real grandma”; she can’t make cookies and likes to play cards, and she is capable of being every bit as childish, petty and playful as her grandson. Which includes such tit-for-tats as making fun of his broken “ding-dong” (he wets himself) and being given a cup of his piss to drink. She also rejects treating him with kid gloves due to his condition (the implication being this outdoors-rambunctiousness has been key to improving it). It’s a warmly evolving relationship – Noel Kate Cho as daughter Anne hardly gets a look in – but one dented when Soon-ja has a stroke. Youn Yuh-jung is compelling in both “roles”, even if the character winds up becoming a tool of plotting rather than dictating it, while Kim is winningly genuine.
Also interesting is Minari’s treatment of belief, which moves to a position of acceptance rather than outright embrace or rejection. We just know the “Chekov’s water diviner” will eventually return after Jacob initially rejects his “magic” on cost grounds, but this resonates effectively in respect of Jacob’s limitations of viewpoint. In part it’s basic practicality, but it’s also reflective of his wife’s more intuitive territory. She is seen to nurse the spiritual impulses, letting Paul (Will Patton) in on the issues with the house and grandma, such that he exorcises the latter’s room, to Jacob’s indignation. Jacob is unmoved by church attendance, and he is likewise reticent of Paul’s effusive speaking-in-tongues, cross-carrying religious mania. But he knows too that Paul is well meaning and that Monica finds reassurance in faith (to whatever extent). This also represents an inversion of the stereotype, the immigrant family largely unbound by cultural traditions and blanching somewhat at the “superstitious” beliefs of those around them.
Minari is well observed then, but slight, classically respectable indie fare. It may win Youn Yuh-jung Best Supporting Actress, but it is unlikely to present a serious challenge in any of the other categories. It will be deemed the decent little movie that more than fulfilled its potential simply by being there (nudged along as it is by the prevailing political currents). I see Chung has signed on to do an anime next (Your Name), so this may be the last chance to experience his filmmaking personality before he’s irrevocably sullied by Hollywood.