At its heart, Minari is a film about assimilation. Why it is such a wonderful film is because it is about in this is so many ways. The most overt layer of this is about the cultural divides the film depicts, focusing on a family that have emigrated to America from Korea who are in the process of fitting into both the local community and the immediate landscape.
This latter part is one of the more interesting ideas: the father has bought some land and is following his dream of becoming a farmer, but is specifically trying to plant Korean vegetables into American soil. The growth of these crops often mirrors the arc of the family, who find life hard to begin with in their new location but begin to settle in and become at home in the environment. The crop growth is aided by a local worker, in a similar way to how the family use the local community to aid their growth (getting involved with a local church). However, the growth of the crop also stands in opposition to the growth of the family, symbolising the choices we make in life and the priorities we follow – and representing conflicted duties. There comes a point where both need water and the overt focus on one, by the father, over the other becomes the heart of the film.
But the theme of assimilation goes deeper. It isn’t just about fitting in and achieving some form of the American dream for yourself; it is about the assimilation of happiness and sadness. Because, though Minari is a beautiful, charming and ultimately warming film, it is also deeply melancholic. Why this works so well is that this melancholy comes in concert with the joy, often presented in stunning ways. There are moments of sadness punctuated by cinematic poetry: lingering shots of a beautiful landscape lifted by ambient sound. However, the film’s sparsely deployed score is also a big part of the ultimate effect. There is a dramatic, and truly tragic, moment towards the end that is paired with an ascending melody in a way that makes the moment feel transcendent. It is not that it is simply a sad moment undercut by happy music, it is that the music captures a beauty that exists in the sadness: the heavenly harmonic progression showing us that moments of grief are as important as moments of joy. This, in the end, is the film’s overt thesis: life comes with both good and bad but is often a marriage of the two, and a successful life is one that safely navigates both.
This, again, comes back to the motifs of crop growth. The father’s farm does symbolise an obsession and a damaging focus on individual success. However, his crop also symbolises his ability to thrive off the good but his inability to cope during the hard times. His vegetables need very specific conditions and without those they are a failure; with the right conditions in place, they are probably a great success. But, much like the father himself, they are only useful when the sun is shining. Meanwhile, another character – the grandmother who arrives part way through the film – plants the titular Minari. This is a plant that is not at all lucrative, it will not bring wealth to the family, but it is hardy. It grows in adverse conditions and has so many uses. It can weather all life throws at it and while it may not be the most conventionally impressive plant, it will survive. The juxtaposition here is used to cleverly critique the American dream and ideas of success. Often films explore the idea of success at what cost, but not usually in the way Minari does. Minari instead aims to redefine success.
This is a film defined by economic hardship and struggle. But here is where the assimilation of sadness and joy comes up again. The film does not wallow in tragedy and revel in poverty. But it is also not a film that shies away from consequence or hardship; quite simply, it just does not let itself be defined by these qualities. This is just one part of the wide tapestry of life and the serene beauty of the filmmaking adds a universality to the experience. There is just a calm that seeps through the entire film. It is the gentle lighting, the pastoral colour scheme and the slow and lingering camera – often focusing on banal details. There is a poetic lens here and, by beautifying life in general, it beautifies the struggle, but not in a way that washes away the pain. If anything, it is a realisation that the quest for conventional success is at odds with real happiness and success for you may not be success for somebody else.
This is all achieved through naturalistic writing and perfect performances. Steven Yeun and Han Ye-ri are perfect as husband and wife. Their characters feel effortlessly real, and while the film doesn’t explore them as much as it could, the life they bring into the characters evokes such believable interior and exterior lives. They have a convincing relationship that is convincing due to the ways in which it is strained in addition to the ways the pair seem suited. Once again, the balance of sadness and joy exists and it is essential to the film’s verisimilitude. We also have the two children, played by Alan Kim and Noel Kate Cho. Alan Kim’s David is the real star of the show. It is a brilliantly directed child performance (writer and director Lee Isaac Chung deserves so much praise for the film’s great successes) and, like everyone else in the film, David is allowed to be charming yet flawed. There is a sadness surrounding David, involving a serious health condition, but – as is always the case – this is placed right next to joy. Our last main character is the grandmother, played by Youn Yuh-jung. She serves as a connection to the past and as a symbol for cultural divides. The idea of a grandmother, what it means in America versus what it may mean elsewhere, is explored through her and her relationship with David is one of the most compelling parts of the film. The two are also the comedic heart of the film and, when it wants to be, Minari is very funny. Like with everything else in Minari, these relationships are just so well evoked. The way the film captures ultra-specific details gives it a sense of humanity and universality that you only ever achieve in this way (where films that go big and try to be universal so often fail).
Ultimately, like the crops at the heart of it, Minari perhaps spreads itself too widely, taking up too much ground for the amount it ultimately yields. The film is wonderful but it opens up more interesting details than it ultimately explores. There is an observational style here, and while that observational style allows it to quietly comment on masculinity, religion, duty and much more, it also does not always allow it to delve as deeply as perhaps it could. To an extent, the ideas and performances outrank the execution. And, while I respect how the narrative refuses to bend itself to symbolic contrivance, pushing naturalism at every point, there is a passivity at play. Also, the one point where the film goes for the dramatic does stand out in opposition to the rest of the film. This moment is a very important one, happening right at the end, but it does feel out of place – even if it provides the beat needed to resolve a core conflict. Perhaps Minari takes in its crop too soon, not letting its metaphors develop as beautifully as they could, but by doing this it does give us something very real. Verisimilitude is a hard thing to evoke, especially when the lives depicted may be so far from your own, and Minari achieves this so well.