Last Friday, the Korean-language drama film “Minari” enjoyed a wide theatrical release by the pioneering independent film studio A24 following its limited release in 2020. “Minari” stars Steven Yeun of “The Walking Dead” fame turned indie movie darling, along with Han Ye-ri, Alan Kim and Youn Yuh-jung in their American cinema debuts. Hallmarked by domestic warmth and sweeping bucolic landscapes, “Minari” is yet another milestone cinematic achievement for A24 to add to their prolific resume, and promises renewal even when released in the midst of a destructive COVID-19 pandemic.
“Minari” tells the story of a Korean immigrant family’s pursuit of the American Dream from a trailer home atop 50 acres of plotted land in rural Arkansas. It is a chimeric farm-tending dream that is yearned for by Jacob Yi (Yeun), but is disputed by his skeptical wife Monica (Ye-ri) who regards the desolate environment as inhospitable to their two children, David (Kim) and Anne (Noel Cho) — the former of whom suffers a heart condition. The rising tensions between the husband and wife are ameliorated upon the arrival of Monica’s mother and the children’s eclectic grandmother, Soon-ja (Yuh-jung), whose idiosyncrasies offend David, though the true nature of David’s disgust is only revealed later on.
“[She has] a Korea smell!” the American-born David complains to Anne.
“You’ve never even been to Korea,” Anne replies in annoyance.
Grandma Soon-ja takes David to a nearby creek to plant East Asian native minari seeds into the soil — a soil that is, like David, wholly American, and not yet sowed by East Asia, despite having been trudged upon by Korean parents. As the minari plant takes root, so does David, and thus the bond between the grandmother and grandson blossoms with the minari under the Arkansas sun.
The relationship between Soon-ja and David is just one example of the film’s thematic focus on the intersection between love and nature. The unity between the grandmother and grandson connects them to the land, which offers them fresh water and flora; meanwhile, the conflict between the husband and wife is fiery and resentful, paralleling the land’s barrenness to the couple.
More blatantly in accordance to this theme, Jacob and Monica discuss the impact of their troubled marriage on their son’s natural heart condition.
Jacob asks Monica, “All we did was fight. Is that why he’s sick?”
This symbolism of love as nature is reinforced by the film’s stunning style: lush, pastoral visuals captured by a smooth, panning, yet naturalist cinematography. Additionally, it contains peaceful, multilayered scoring that alternates between and combines together whimsical chorals, smooth strings, piano notes and guitar strums. The influence of Terrence Malick’s 1978 film “Days of Heaven” is clearly evident in both lavish pastoral visuals as well as plots characterized by proairetic simplicity until their scorching final acts.
Still, “Minari” is not without its flaws. With the already unchallenging plot taking a sideline to the style, the film’s substance fails to bloom without enough water. Intriguing characters, such as Anne and the family’s new church friends, are not fully fleshed out and remain static throughout the story. The script’s dialogue is somewhat underwhelming. Some plot threads, such as the sighting of a snake by Soon-ja and David, are abandoned. However, these flaws can be defended by the film’s clear autobiographical intention which teeters on the edge of the “slice of life” genre — a genre that eschews narrative complexity in favor of tranquility, of which “Minari” compensates for by providing a surplus of said tranquil atmosphere.
“Minari” is a perfect watch for families and viewers who are partial to aestheticized nature and storgic love in cinema. Come prepared with a tissue box.