Minari, this film’s namesake, is a plant. Java dropwort, Chinese celery, Indian pennywort, Japanese parsley, water celery, and water dropwort are among its other names — owing, perhaps, to its widespread distribution and its adaptability in planting its roots just about anywhere. Although minari doesn’t appear until later in the film, the metaphor is clear from the outset as Jacob (Steven Yeun), his wife Monica (Han Ye-ri), and their two children, Anne and David, greet their new home on wheels in an Arkansas field. To move beyond a life of chicken sexing in California, Jacob has dreamt of farming. Less than impressed, Monica hints at the fight that will repeatedly rear its head — this isn’t what Jacob promised them.
Jacob and Monica continue chicken sexing to sustain themselves. When he can, Jacob begins planting seeds of Korean vegetables with help from Paul, a Pentecostal neighbour who guides him in planting widths and the Holy Spirit. Turning down the local diviners to find water and ignoring Paul’s prayers, Jacob is determined to succeed on his own intelligence and hard work. Where Monica wants to attend church and find community, Jacob’s only interest and obsession is the farm. He intends to strike his roots in unaccustomed earth, and oddly he seems to be fine with remaining himself unaccustomed.
With that, the stage is set for the arrival of Monica’s mother, Soonja. This brings Monica some peace in having a babysitter for David who has a hole in his heart. Card-playing and swear-word-saying and bringer of foul-tasting soups instead of cookies, David rejects her as a “real” grandmother. But it’s Soonja who brings the minari seeds and coaxes David to the creek to plant them. It’s Soonja who lets him run where everyone else tells him to walk. David is young enough to be formed by the American soil he’s been growing in, and she doesn’t fit his grandmotherly vision, but the confrontation with Soonja is a reckoning with his ancestral roots. The relationship between these two formed the heart of the film.
Minari’s strength is that the shape of its characters are so evocative that the memories we find springing up are vivid, particularly for those of us who are immigrants. And even for those who aren’t, the tension and tedium of family is bound to jerk the heart. Jacob, Monica, Soonja, and Anne come across almost like archetypes from David’s memory — bickering parents, a determined and stubborn father, a stressed and overprotective mother, a guardian sister, a jesting grandmother. Without committing entirely to David’s point-of-view, however, there were moments when the film showed its careful construction too much. It moved from character to character, exploring their character development only insofar as it furthered the narrative. There was no sense, for example, of Monica’s hopes or desires beyond opposing Jacob and fearing for David. And Soonja is a strong personality, but we don’t learn who she really is; we don’t truly know why she acts as she does, beyond simply being headstrong.
I suspect that since the forms of these characters match the sketches that our memories take, those who can relate to the family situation in Minari, as I do myself, find more than enough material to help them fill the blanks and feel a flood of emotion. Because it isn’t a coming-of-age film and yet it isn’t from the perspective of any particular character, it lacks a reckoning with the individual frustrations that did arise, as between Jacob and Monica, and might otherwise have arisen, as between the children and their parents.
A beautiful homage to the immigrant struggle to plant roots and grow, Minari sometimes paints in strokes too broad across the film but the glimmers of detail are incredibly moving. The universal is often in the specific, and the specifics are where Minari truly shines. The unique interactions between characters, the idiosyncrasies of place and personality — these all held glimpses of a world far richer than was ultimately presented to the audience.