"Minari": Peppery, Bitter and Resilient
Updated: Jun 14, 2021
The soil's rich color, "that's why I picked this place," says Jacob (Steven Yuen). "Because of the dirt color?" his wife, Monica (Yeri Han), asks with disdain.
Minari is about an American dream. It is Jean de Florette in Arkansas. It is a portrayal of a marriage.
After 10 years of living in Seattle and California, a family leaves the Golden State for the South and 50 acres. Staying put, Jacob Yi foresaw a future of “staring at chicken butts” in low-paying jobs distinguishing the sex of chickens for hatcheries. But in their new home, Monica, his wife, misses the camaraderie of other Korean Americans, a familiar urban life and the stability of a regular paycheck.
Before it even begins, the ethereal magic of Emile Mosseri’s Rain Song lures us into the film. Then, we see the interior of the car driven by Monica who follows the moving van driven by Jacob. They drive down tree-lined roads, and they pass hay bales and farmhouses before turning into a secluded cleared field and stopping at their new home: a long and narrow mobile home on more than two dozen wheels and blocks.
The children, Anne and her younger brother, David, run to the house and giggle as their father hoists them up in place of the house’s steps, which were not yet at the entrance. Jacob has to cajole Monica inside. She ignores his extended hand and clambers inside. Then, she says: “This isn’t what you promised.”
Within the first few minutes, the strong-willed Jacob and Monica establish their stances: Jacob for country life and Monica for the city. Later, Jacob says: "Working outdoors makes me feel alive” to which Monica responds: “We’re losing so much money. I’m worried.”
At the start, the couple handicaps itself. “David, don’t run,” the two shout like a mantra to their son, who has a heart condition; Jacob told Monica that he had bought a garden, not a farm, and Monica is rigid about the benefit of living minutes away from a mall, school and hospital.
Jacob had spent years dreaming about his land. Before even seeing it, he had planned it. He is rigid about his “Garden of Eden”, which he says will turn a profit in three years. Farming is unpredictable due to the locality, weather and other uncontrollable variables. Yet, the newcomer believes that his determination will ensure his timeframe.
He is naive.
Yet, like Jean de Florette, another urbanite who flees the city for the land and struggles to find water, his passion emboldens him to adversity.
As a compromise, the couple agrees to send for Soon-ja, Monica’s mother, from South Korea. From her arrival, Soon-ja sees the marriage clearly because she is not in it. She also sees the land clearly because she has no designs on Jacob’s dream.
Along with chili powder, anchovies and chestnuts, Soon-ja had brought seeds of minari, which is a perennial herb whose leaf resembles parsley and stem is crunchy and hollow. Minari tastes peppery with a hint of bitterness.
When Soon-ja suggests planting minari by the creek, Jacob says that he will think about it.
“What’s there to think about,” Soon-ja says. “I’ll just plant it.”
“Minari is truly the best,” she says. “It grows anywhere like weeds. So, anyone can pick and eat it. Rich or poor, anyone can enjoy it and be healthy. Minari can be put in kimchi, put in stew, put in soup. It can be medicine if you are sick. Minari is wonderful. Wonderful!”
The ensemble of Minari executes an emotionally layered script like a family. Several marital scenes are painful because they are close to the bone. Counter to them are the humorous conversations that David has with his grandmother, who plays cards and watches wrestling on television.
“You don’t look like a grandmother,” he says. “You don’t act like a grandmother. . . . You don’t bake cookies, and you curse.”
Soon-ja is a lively character for which Yuh-Jung Youn won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress this year. Minari earned five other Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Score, Best Original Screenplay and Best Actor (Steven Yuen as Jacob).
The film is partly based on the life of the writer, Lee Isaac Chung, who also directed it. Chung and the editor, Harry Yoon, know how to maximize a shot. In the opening scene, for example, Monica steals a glance at Anne, who is enthralled in a book, as our introduction to her daughter.
Like any good piece of fiction, the film has its eccentricity. Jacob hires Paul, who had fought in Korea and likes kimchi. Sometimes, Paul speaks in tongues and, on Sundays, Paul drags a wooden cross down a road as “my church”.
Minari is rich, deceptively so. It merits more than one viewing.
Writer-director Chung talks about the film’s namesake in Asia Tatler (April 26): “It’s a plant that will grow very strongly in its second season after it has died and come back. So, there’s an element of that in the film. . . . It’s a poetic plant in a way for me.”