by Elizabeth Saliba
Minari. A plant native to Korea that doubles as a weed and a vegetable. According to Lee Isaac Chung, director of the film holding the same title, Minari “grows very strongly in its second season, after it’s died and come back.” From the title of the movie to the countless nuances throughout the plot’s development, every aspect of “Minari” seems delicately intentional. For that reason, the film is up for six Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Original Score.
“Minari,” set in 1980s Arkansas, and captures the experience of a Korean American family in search of a fresh start and the American dream. Jacob Yi, patriarch of the family, played by Steven Yeun, views their home on wheels and abundant farmland through rose colored glasses. Monica, played by Yeri Han, questions her husband’s optimism and his ability to support their two children, David and Anne, played by Alan Kim and Noel Cho. Jacob attempts to soften the family’s arduous life transition by inviting Monica’s mother, Soonja, into the picture.
The cinematography beautifully captures Jacob’s perspective through shots of radiant sunlight melting into vivid greenery. The soundtrack acts in harmony with the cinematography, tastefully adding another layer of emotion emitted by the natural landscape. If a scene is subtly building into a larger event, the soundtrack foreshadows through a dynamic sort of ambience that has to be felt for yourself to truly be understood. Piano solos, typically dominating the mood, were complemented by a light humming that made the viewer feel like a dainty piece of grass in an Arkansas field, whimsically overcome by the force of a light breeze. Similar melodies repeat in their own forms throughout the course of the move; like the plant minari, this symbolizes nuanced growth and development over time.
One of the highlights of “Minari” was the evolution of the grandmother-grandson relationship between Soonja and David. David, a first-generation Korean American child, had set polar opposite expectations for his grandmother, hoping for a cookie-baking, sweet-talking old woman when instead he got a foul-mouthed, highly-competitive jokester. This relationship adds a silver lining of humor to the serious circumstances the family faces. It also outlines an underlying identity crisis faced by David when assimilating to a new culture, which is emphasized by his preference of the American “water of the mountains”, otherwise known as Mountain Dew, over most anything else.
Digging deeper into the idea of assimilation, Cheung presents the Yi family’s situation in a very interesting way. The viewer is provided no reference to Jacob and Monica’s previous life in Korea. The only presentation of their Korean heritage is through food and language, surface level things that can be perceived effortlessly. This seemed to remind viewers that the human experience is repetitive and familiar, despite surface level variations that are easy to label as stark differences among groups.
Overall, “Minari” was a very well done film. However, it would have been interesting to delve deeper into Anne’s experiences and perspectives. Anne was weighted with a great responsibility of taking care of David and appeared to be a poised, obedient, and selfless daughter. Nonetheless, she was just a child reveling through the family’s experience in her own way. Anne’s role as a side character (while all other family members take leading roles) seems to parallel the reality of being a side character in her parent’s eyes.
It will be interesting to see how “Minari” is recognized at the Oscars after winning best foreign-language film at the Golden Globes. Controversy arose after this win; while the film did not meet the 50 percent English language requirement, “Minari” was filmed in the United States by an American director, and it was financed and produced by the American companies A24 and Plan B, respectively. This categorization prevented the film from receiving Golden Globe nominations for Best Picture. In response, Chung told New York Times, “Maybe the positive side of all of this is that we’ve made a film that challenges some of those existing categories, and adds to the idea that an American film might look and sound very differently from what we’re used to.”