You may have heard of A24’s newest film Minari but likely for all the wrong reasons. As award season ramps up, the award hopeful was the center of some curious nominating decisions by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, the organization behind the Golden Globes, when naming its choices for Best Motion Picture (Drama). While nominating expected contenders like Mank, Nomadland, and Promising Young Woman, Minari was left off the list and relegated to Best Foreign Language Film instead.
Not being nominated for Best Motion Picture (Drama) isn’t exactly the problem. It is always arguable what a Best Picture is (just see the conversations that circled around the Oscars and The Dark Knight in 2008 before the Academy expanded the total nominees). The real issue is that Minari was deemed a foreign film in the first place. Produced by American company Plan B, distributed by American company A24, directed by American Lee Isaac Chung, and featuring American star Steven Yeun, Minari, literally, is an American production.
The content of the film is also truly American and might be, next to Nomadland, about the most American a film can get in 2020/2021 in terms of message. The fact that 90% of the dialogue is in Korean, and some of the cast featured are Koreans, doesn’t automatically make it a foreign film. The Globes previously did the same thing to Clint Eastwood’s Letters From Iwo Jima, nominating it for Best Foreign Language film because, according to the HFPA’s rules, the film contained 51% or more of its dialogue in a language other than English (in this case, Japanese). Bear in mind, Letters From Iwo Jima was produced by the American company Dreamworks. Minari, a festival favorite and frequent visitor on critics’ “Best Of” lists, has brought more attention to the HFPA’s strange criteria. Kinder critics have called the Minari situation misguided while many have gone deeper, calling it racist. Author Min Jin Lee may have summed it up best when she tweeted:
“The English language is not an indigenous language. Enough of this nonsense about Asian-Americans being permanently foreign. I’m done.”
In a sense, this controversy over what is “foreign” helps drive Minari’s primary plot home. Taking place in Arkansas in the mid-1980s, Minari tells the story of hopeful farmer and Korean-American immigrant Jacob Yi (Yeun), his skeptical wife Monica (Yeri Han), and their two kids, pre-teen Anne (Noel Kate Cho) and six-year-old David (Alan S. Kim), a rambunctious boy with a serious heart condition. Trekking from their previous life in California, Jacob has his family living an isolated life in the Arkansas wilderness, hours away from crowded cities and, at a disadvantage to David, hospitals. Jacob’s goal is to build a farm from scratch, exclusively growing Korean vegetables and fruits to service major markets elsewhere in the state and in Texas.
The struggle is almost instantaneous upon the Yi’s arrival at their would-be farmstead. Money is tight and when Jacob isn’t building his farm, he’s helping pay the bills by sexing chickens with Monica at a nearby factory with other Korean immigrants. The children thus remain primarily unsupervised and the mostly-Korean-speaking family has trouble fitting in with their closest neighbors. A solution to their child problem is to have Monica’s mother Soonja (Yuh-jung Youn) visit from Korea and live with them.
With a packed house and bills going past due, plus the lack of interest in Jacob’s crop, tensions rise. Jacob and Monica question their future on the farm and as a couple and young David clashes with his eccentric grandmother. Though Jacob’s eternal optimism keeps the hope alive, the American Dream seems like a nearly impossible outcome for the Yis.
The most pleasant aspect about Minari is that it doesn’t profit off of immigrant suffering. The tale being told is not an exploitative one. In fact, Minari is not only brimming with hope but overflowing with honesty. Though Jacob and Monica have problems in their marriage with where their family is at, this isn’t portrayed as screaming matches and a clash of wills. It is told quietly, in the margins, with a facial expression here or a shrug of the shoulders there. The depiction of married life feels so natural and real. Jacob and Monica clearly love each other and, also, drive each other crazy. We see moments of tension but also moments of tenderness.
Speaking of tenderness, Minari might be, in the end, the most pleasant movie of 2020, if not in the last decade. Thankfully, there is no racial animosity present in the film. Not that Korean immigrants didn’t face racism in reality but it is nice to see a story where the conflict arises from personal growth and self-determination. This story isn’t about a struggle to assimilate to white people in town. It is more about achieving that nearly-mythical American Dream: where you can make something of nothing and succeed.
Minari splits its time between Jacob’s endless struggle with building his farm and David’s relationship with Soonja. In a sense, you have three generations of culture intermixing with some bumps in the road. Soonja is Korean and brings with her many Korean customs that clash with the young David, who has been born and raised in America his whole life. Somewhere in the middle is Jacob and Monica, who have feet in both the Korean world and the American one. Monica especially struggles to adapt to her mother’s Korean customs and her own American ones, especially when going into town to “blend in”.
Like previously mentioned, none of this conflict is dark or stormy. Like any six-year-old faced with a peculiar babysitter, David’s interaction with Soonja is a mixture of shyness, obtuseness, and curiosity. This is accomplished thanks to whimsical performances by both the young Kim and the feisty Youn. Both easily steal the show. However, credit must be given to Yeun and Han as well for their more subtle and soft performances. Add Will Patton as a deeply religious farm-hand and Minari easily boasts one of the strongest and pleasant casts of 2020.
All this couldn’t be accomplished without director Lee Isaac Chung’s steady hand and understanding of the material. Minari is a breezy 115 minutes and doesn’t contain a lot of emotional fireworks. It does all its heavy lifting with the unseen expectation of success that Jacob believes in. Like the farm being built from scratch, the film takes its time developing itself. As if looking back on his own memories, of which Minari is partly biographical, Chung is wise to often let the camera stay static and observe the soft, flowing rivers or the sun peeking through the trees; he spends that extra minute focusing on a character’s concerned or troubled face. There is an element of voyeurism in the proceedings. We feel like a fly on the wall of an American family trying its best to make do.
Though this is an American film and notably far less dark, Minari continues the tradition of last year’s Parasite by giving us a peek into the Korean way of thinking, both from the Korean born and those raised in the United States. It is a tender tale that should be rated G (if not for Soonja’s penchant for cursing!). It is, above all, a family tale and, regardless of what the Golden Globes tell you, a uniquely American one.
Minari will be released in theaters February 12th. It will be released as a VOD on February 26th.