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The Language Is Korean, But 'Minari' Is An American Film

A still from 'Minari,' by writer and director Lee Isaac Chung.
Melissa Lukenbaugh / A24
A still from 'Minari,' by writer and director Lee Isaac Chung.

Minari has won a host of awards at film festivals around the country, and most recently it received Golden Globe nominations for its entire cast and for Best Foreign Language Film. For KUNC film critic Howie Movshovitz, who teaches film and television at CU-Denver, the language of Minari is Korean, but it’s an American film.

Ever since his dazzling first feature film, Munyurangabo, in 2007, writer-director Lee Isaac Chung has understood the value of understatement. He sees the small things that echo beyond themselves and he respects how life is incremental, rather than a series of headlines.

In Minari, a Korean-American family moves from California to a remote piece of land in Arkansas. It’s the 1980s. Jacob (Steven Yeun) and his wife Monica (Yeri Han) — they’ve taken English names — are experienced chicken-sexers. That work has supported them, more or less, but like many immigrants, Jacob wants more. He wants land to grow Korean vegetables for developing Korean communities in the West. With a rented truck and their own car, the family drive through miles of rolling hills in the Ozarks until they come to a field with a long brown trailer sitting on wheels.

This is home, Jacob announces. The two young kids think it’s fun to climb into the trailer because there are no steps. Jacob suggests they all sleep on the floor in the empty trailer as a kind of celebration. Monica sees no humor in this shell of a building. She looks devastated. In his giddy excitement, Jacob pushes aside some grass in the field to show his wife the dark brown soil. “You brought us here for the color of the dirt?” she asks.

And so, their life inches along out here with no phone, and no neighbors. The changes can be imperceptible. From scene to scene, furniture appears; pictures show up on the walls, pots in the kitchen. Paul (Will Patton) is now there working with Jacob. Paul’s fanatic in his religion and his optimism. Like Jesus, he walks down the road carrying a huge cross. But Paul’s kind and loyal in ways that count — when Jacob erupts in frustration, Paul calms him — things will work out.

It’s actually the picture of life as slow-moving that gives Minari quiet juice. The tornado misses the house; Jacob solves the water problem; young son David’s heart condition improves. A big event is the arrival of Monica’s mother. Instead of nurturing, she’s rough around the edges. David scolds her to act like a grandmother. Near the stream, she plants minari, Korean watercress.

Director Lee Isaac Chung and his film have been compared to Yasujiro Ozu, the great minimalist Japanese master. But Ozu watched how natural human events shift family life — a grandmother dies, a widower tries to convince his daughter to marry. Ozu made many of his films after World War II, so they show realignment — the subtext is a society reconfiguring itself after the war. Minari is about a family slowly growing into itself after starting fresh. There’s no wartime rubble — physical or social — to climb over.

And these people are immigrants, so they have drive, persistence and imagination in ways that people already part of their societies do not have. They don’t know what to make of characters like Paul or the boss at the chicken hatchery, but immigrants adapt in ways that never occur to settled Americans.

Director Chung does not come to this story from nowhere. He was born and raised in Arkansas by Korean immigrant parents. Minari is not autobiographical, but it obviously comes from Chung’s felt experience. It takes a sure hand to make a film based on such small movements and changes. Chung knows this world deeply enough to trust its undulations and rhythms. He’s said his earlier films were practice for Minari. If that’s so, the training worked. Minari’s a confident movie that trusts its audience to honor the experience of the characters, even though the movie’s not spectacular, even though it’s simply human — which is not at all simple.

Howie Movshovitz came to Colorado in 1966 as a VISTA Volunteer and never wanted to leave. After three years in VISTA, he went to graduate school at CU-Boulder and got a PhD in English, focusing on the literature of the Middle Ages. In the middle of that process, though (and he still loves that literature) he got sidetracked into movies, made three shorts, started writing film criticism and wound up teaching film at the University of Colorado-Denver. He continues to teach in UCD’s College of Arts & Media.
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