Editor’s note: A previous version of this article stated that ‘Minari’ had won the top prize among foreign language films at the 2021 Golden Globes. Though the film did indeed take this award, the ceremony had not yet happened at the time of original publication.
Minari has a lot of names. I’m not talking about the film, but its namesake, Oenanthe javanica. For the uninitiated, it’s an herb used in a variety of cuisines, prepared by itself or added to elevate an existing dish. In Korea it’s called minari; in Japan, it’s called seri. Here we call it Japanese parsley, or Chinese celery, or Indian pennywort, or Java water dropwort or just plain water celery sans any national distinction. As one character remarks, “It grows anywhere, like weeds … rich or poor, anyone can enjoy it and be healthy.” So, it’s got a lot of names.
This weed of 10,000 names and 10,000 homes neatly sets up the enduring metaphor of “Minari.” The film is Americana in celluloid but also a prototypical immigrant tale, for isn’t America supposed to be the monarch of immigrant tales, in lip service if not in unvarnished truth? The movie’s also one of those classic fish-out-of-water, family-seen-through-the-eyes-of-a-child stories that are practically a genre of their own. “Minari” fits in as a faithful example that will no doubt resonate with many an immigrant or displaced person. But none of that is to say “Minari” is a formulaic stock film — it’s imbued with an incredible, enchanting specificity that can only be spun off the vagaries and vicissitudes of lived experience.
Shaped by writer-director Lee Isaac Chung’s (“I Have Seen My Last Born”) early childhood, it follows a Korean husband-wife duo and their Korean American children as they try to navigate the turns and bends of agrarian life in rural 1980s Arkansas. The child observer is young David Yi (Alan Kim, in his debut), a sweet, chubby-faced kid with a heart condition. David is, of course, a fictionalized, de-aged Chung. David spends his days trouncing around the Arkansan backcountry with his sister Anne (Noel Cho, in her debut), a dutiful older sibling that weathers microaggressions like a champ and his grandmother Soonja — a crass crone with a jovial nature played with incredible charm by Yuh-Jung Youn (“The Bacchus Lady”).
If David is the beating, slightly arrhythmic heart of the film, it’s his parents and the assimilation anxieties they represent that provide the catalyzing force and anima of the film. Steve Yeun (“Burning”) and Han Ye-ri (“Champion”) give quiet yet full-bodied, heart-grasping performances as Jacob and Monica. They’re professional chicken sexers, an oh-so-unglamorous line of work involving adorable little chickens that you condemn to either be tossed in a furnace or raised, fattened, squeezed of all their eggs and eventually McNugget-ified (depending on the parts between their legs). Monica is a city-bred woman who misses Korea with ardor, but whose only focus is bringing in the dough to support her children. Jacob, on the other hand, has big, American dream-inflected ambitions that extend beyond being an arbiter of the fate of poultry. After arriving in their new pastoral, podunk life in Arkansas, he explains to Monica that it’s the soil that brought them there: “The best dirt in America,” he excitedly claims. Jacob sees the opportunity to feed thousands of Koreans with a little taste of home. Monica sees dirt.
Dirt is something of a focus in “Minari.” The film carefully considers the natural beauty of the land: rolling fields, babbling brooks, winding roads hemmed in by trees and trees and trees. The idyllic scenes are contrasted by family tensions and the looming specter of financial catastrophe, both aspects accompanied bewitchingly by the film’s light, languid soundtrack.
But Monica’s not wrong, either. Dirt is dirt, and people seldom imagine their future in dirt, whether or not a few pretty things grow out of it. It’s a lonely, uncertain life for immigrant Koreans in the homogenous alabaster expanse of rural Arkansas. Culture shock runs rampant and goes both ways: Just as kids make fun of Anne and David’s language and faces, the Yis are endlessly put off by the locals’ Bible-thumping and reliance on things like dowsing wands — “Koreans use their minds,” Jacob reminds his son.
This mélange of identities and the category crises that ensue are the film’s quarry. What does it mean to be Korean when you’re no longer in Korea? What does it mean to be American when you’re not from America? Can Grandma smell like Korea, even if you yourself have never smelled Korea? (That last one is courtesy of David.) It approaches these topics with a tender and earnest touch, never failing to inspire a laugh, a tear or poignant pause with each carefully framed slice-of-life moment.
“Minari” the film experienced a bit of a category crisis as well. Is it “Minari” the American movie, or “Minari” the Korean movie? At the Sundance Film Festival, it snagged both the U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize and the U.S. Dramatic Audience Award, a rare confluence of accolades.
But, at the Golden Globes, it was relegated to the Foreign Language Film category. It is expected to win the top prize among foreign language films but was disallowed from competing in the Best Drama category due to its Korean-bent language. It’s true, the film is mostly in Korean, so subtitles are a must for the non-fluent. But let’s be clear: It’s all a load of malarkey. The original question was not meant to be profound, for it was no question at all. “Minari” is as American as apple pie, not in spite but because of its Korean furnishings.
But these categories, as crisis-inducing as they can be, are ephemeral. Like all the great fish-out-of-water family stories, it’s less about being a fish-out-of-water and more about being a family. Korea, Arkansas — dirt is dirt, and a family can grow anywhere.
Daily Arts Writer Jacob Lusk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.