Growing up in rural America with Korean immigrant parents, writer/director Lee Isaac Chung was planning to go to medical school when he took an arts class in college on filmmaking. The class required each student to make a narrative video every week, and finding the art form exciting and compelling, Chung changed his career choice. His first award-winning film, “Munyurangaabo,” about the conflict in Rwanda, was made in 2010, but after a long hiatus of significant films, Chung at age 40 was planning to switch to a career in academia.
Before this switch, he felt compelled to write one last screenplay; this one to be about his childhood with his parents on their farm in 1980s Arkansas. The result was “Minari,” which opened at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival where it won both grand jury and audience awards. Most recently, it has been nominated for Academy Awards in the categories of Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Leading Actor.
Driving the family car as she follows her husband Jacob (Steven Yeun) steering a van with all of their household possessions, Monica (Yeri Han) registers surprise and chagrin when he stops at a mobile home in the middle of an isolated field. Jacob has purchased five acres of fertile land in Arkansas where he plans to create a farm growing fruits and vegetables not produced in the United States but popular in Korea. He also wants his children—7-year-old David (Alan S. Kim) and older sister Anne (Noel Cho)–to see him create a more meaningful, independent, and productive life.
Both Jacob and Monica work as chicken “sexers” in a warehouse where they discard the male baby chicks and save the females to grow up and produce eggs. It is tedious work and Jacob is hoping that the farm, which he plans to tend after work hours and on weekends, will free up both of them from their monotonous jobs in the warehouse. But Monica looks on the venture as a waste of their savings and an overwhelmingly impossible goal. She wishes they had never left their previous home in California.
To add to their challenges, rambunctious David has a heart condition that necessitates curtailing his running and jumping. He also needs regular check-ups in a hospital that is now thirty miles away. To alleviate the isolation and provide supervision for the children, Jacob sends for Monika’s Korean mother, Soonja (Yuh-Jung Yoon), who is not a typical grandma. Being both mischievous and brimming with old-world wisdom, Soonja teaches David a card game that involves using Korean profanity.
David says to Soonja, “You are not a grandma; you don’t bake cookies.” But Soonja does accompany David on long walks into the woods where they find a stream bed to plant minari, a leafy green vegetable used in Korean cooking. Not needing the irrigation that Jacob’s farmland depends on, the Korean plant flourishes. She also teaches David a lesson about fear. As he takes a stone to throw at a snake sunning on a fallen tree branch, she cautions him against using it, saying, “Things that hide are more dangerous and scary.”
But Soonja is not the only eccentric character in the lives of these Korean immigrants. Jacob finds it odd and quaint that the man he hires to locate a source of underground water to irrigate his fields uses a dowsing stick as he walks the land. Another worker, Paul (Will Patton), a Pentecostal Christian, expresses his faith not by attending church but by carrying a hand-hewn cross on his shoulders as he walks the dusty roads each Sunday.
As a screenwriter and director, Chung has used this Korean immigrant family to tap into the challenges, setbacks, and endurance of many families. He explores the strife within Jacob’s and Monica’s marriage, both their disagreements and their loyalties, as well as the adjustments needed for any family relocating in a new environment. Never didactic or sentimental, “Minari” rejoices in the human spirit faced with defeats and triumphs.
“Minari” is streaming on Amazon Prime.