Entertainment Lee Isaac Chung's Minari transmits intimate tale of Korean American immigrant family into grand narrative of hope and risk
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A haze of green opens Minari — director and writer Lee Isaac Chung's acclaimed and partially autobiographical new film — as we whiz past an impressionistic blur of foliage, distant farms, and iron-roofed sheds.
We're in the car with the Yis, a Korean-American immigrant family of four, as they rush towards a 50-acre plot of land in the rural Ozarks of Arkansas, with a ramshackle trailer that they're about to call home.
Here they will strive towards self-sufficiency by undertaking the backbreaking, financially risky work of opening a vegetable farm on "the best dirt in America" — as dad Jacob (Steven Yeun) describes it.
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As the Yis adjust to their new agrarian life, Minari paints a portrait of immigrant experience very rarely seen on screen, adding nuance to the diasporic narrative defined recently by box office hits includingand .
Chung trades the culture-clash narrative of those films for a story where dynamics of alienation or assimilation are subsumed by a quieter ode to his family: the sacrifices his parents made, the antics of a foul-mouthed grandmother, and a sister stoic through it all.
It's a specific story, featuring predominantly Korean-language dialogue, that's proven universally resonant.
After the film's premiere, Chung says, "a lot of people were coming up to me and telling me about their own families, and it wasn't just Asian Americans. It was people from all different walks of life".
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Chung's film took out the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award in the US Dramatic section of Sundance Film Festival in 2020.
What's more surprising, perhaps, is the Oscars buzz it is generating: Minari is widely tipped to be a Best Picture nominee when the Academy Awards make their announcement on March 15.
When you consider that, by Korean director Bong Joon-ho, was the first non-English-language film to win Best Picture in the Awards' history, you start to get a sense of how Chung's film, while absolutely American, might be considered an outlier in a traditionally insular industry.
Besides being a predominantly Korean-language film, Minari is also resolutely small-scale, compared to the sweeping visions of recent Best Picture winners like Green Book and The Shape of Water.
Instead of cross-country road trips or grand, fantastical romances, it keeps its focus tightly where it begins: on the everyday minutiae of the Yi family.
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That Minari has firmly cemented itself as a strong Oscars contender against these odds is testament to its emotional resonance.
In a crowded playing field and a turbulent year, the film feels like a reminder that, with a keen eye and open mind, the smallest of joys can be elevated to the stuff of grand fantasy.
Part of Minari's charm is its specificity, blending a fictional tale with details from Chung's life.
Like the boundlessly enthusiastic seven-year-old David (played by newcomer Alan S. Kim), Chung spent time as a child in rural Arkansas, in the 80s; like David, he grew up with a heart murmur.
Transferring his childhood to screen was a "strange, cathartic process," Chung says, that involved scaffolding the script from a base of 80 visual memories.
"In that process, I felt like I was able to remove myself from those memories, to reassess them, and to take liberties with them — to change characters and storylines to make them work in a creative way."
Indeed, much of Minari feels gauzy, as recollections often do. Shots from David's perspective — as he races through tall grass, or troops down to the lake with his fresh-off-the-plane grandma, Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung) — evoke the grandeur of the world as seen through a child's eyes.
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Meanwhile, plumbing his parents' experiences allowed Chung to imagine past events with the benefit of hindsight, closing a generational gap that many viewers — diasporic or otherwise — will be all too familiar with.
"As a kid...there's a veil of separation between you and your dad, especially when you have a dad who's under a lot of stress."
"[Now] you understand he's a human being, our parents were human beings, grandmother was human, and so were we. You give grace to yourself, as well, for being a silly kid."
Telling personal stories
In a landscape that favours neatly packaged narratives over more complex ambiguity, the path for non-white filmmakers can seem pre-ordained: make work that hinges on your identity, offering up your lived experience to a broad audience.
It's a pressure Chung has resisted since his 2007 debut Munyurangaboo, which was shot on location in Rwanda and followed two boys in the aftermath of the genocide.
"Early on...I did notice that a lot of people had the tendency to do their own story starting out," Chung says.
"I felt like I was never interested in that, and I wanted to tell stories of people who are very different. [Munyurangaboo] gave me a perspective on film that is far removed from the American industry."
It took him over a decade — and another two features — before he would turn his gaze inwards
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"I needed that time to grow...before I could tackle something that's very personal," he says.
"My daughter was five when I was writing Minari, very much close to the age of David. And I was about to turn 40, which was the age my dad was when he decided he was going to start this farm in Arkansas."
"I don't think I could've imagined all those things as a 20-year-old — like what a 40-year-old Korean man was thinking. But I understand it more now, especially after going through difficulties in life, failures, the stresses of being a father."
The politics of the awards circuit
Despite Minari's rapturous reception — picking up a suite of nominations since its Sundance premiere, including the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts (AACTA) International Awards — the film's awards journey hasn't been smooth sailing.
In December, the Golden Globes determined that it would be ineligible to compete in the Best Drama category, owing to its mostly Korean dialogue. It was instead relegated to Best Foreign Language Film.
This 'demotion', coming off the back of the Globes' decision last year to do the same for Lulu Wang's film, prompted outrage from Wang and actors Daniel Dae Kim (Hellboy; Always Be My Maybe) and Simu Liu (starring in Marvel's forthcoming Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings).
Chung says, "I find myself ambivalent about [awards]."
"There's something about the awards that makes you wonder what the meaning [even is] behind them. In the end, awards don't last."
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The Globes aren't necessarily an indication of quality, he says, but they are a bellwether for industry standards.
"I do think as an industry, we should never say that we don't have a long way to go," he says.
"And I hope the idea of inclusion and embracing humanity [continues], despite national borders, despite cultures."
Love in a hopeless place
Minari tracks the tribulations of its core family — a marriage in hot water, monetary woes, and the difficulties of adjusting to rural America as a clan of outsiders — but it's careful not to mine them for pity.
Instead, it's filled with unexpected moments of comedy, many of them from grandma Soon-ja's raucous (and often crass) refusal to conform to the stereotype of a 'traditional' grandmother, as well as one very memorable gross-out prank that David pulls (suffice to say: a glass of Mountain Dew and a toilet are involved).
To that extent, Chung's film ends on a buoyant note: "an image of a family that's just together," in his words.
It feels like a salve in these times of doom and gloom; a much-needed ode to community that eschews saccharine sentimentality for something far richer.
Minari is a movie about hope, Chung says, a message ultimately meant for his daughter.
"The film talks about the things that last, and ... what we might stake our happiness on. That's something I've learnt the hard way, and I hope that she comes to it in some sense, that she understands it's love, family, community that really matter the most."
"But right now, it's all about the pee jokes."
Minari is in cinemas now.
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