Friday 2 April 2021

Common ground: "Minari"

This year's Little Film That Could, Lee Isaac Chung's Minari, is as gentle and undemonstrative an experience as you'll have this awards season. What you might forget watching it is that someone at backers A24 or Brad Pitt's production company Plan B chose to greenlight it at a moment when the US Government was going out of its way to foster a culture of hostility towards people such as its main characters. This strikes me as the most fraught decision in recent American cinema: whether to defy the political zeitgeist by taking a chance on an unknown filmmaker and a drama conducted largely in Korean. Still, somebody took it, a leap of faith almost as great as that taken by Minari's protagonists, a migrant family attempting to make a new life by moving into an articulated trailer in a field in Arkansas at an unspecified point in the 1980s. Chung's film flags its core conflict from the off. Dad Jacob (Steven Yeun, from Burning) is an optimist who travels this way to take advantage of what he calls "the best dirt in America" and turn this small scrap of land into a cabbage-farming empire; for him, this is a place to take root and grow. His wife, restless city girl Monica (Yeri Han), arrives on site with arms firmly folded, appearing quietly sceptical of the whole enterprise. Nevertheless, for just under two hours, we watch this clan - Jacob, Monica, their teenage daughter Anne (Noel Cho) and cherubic youngest David (Alan S. Kim), busy converting gallons of Mountain Dew into a bedwetting problem - settling in, finding their feet. They gain a friend and farmhand in dotty, God-fearing neighbour Paul (Will Patton, going full Robert Duvall on us); Monica's mom Soonja (Youn Yuh-Jung) arrives with spice powder and minari seeds from home. (David, who's never met his gran, hides behind his mother's skirts.) We're aware these are the only non-Caucasian faces in this peaceable backwater, and that it's not so far removed from tornado country, but Chung never forces the drama, for the most part. Instead, he does something unusual for a migrant movie: he makes the rest of us feel at home.

He achieves that via the unusually close attention he pays to this family's domestic routine. You come away from the film with a sense of both the lay of this land and the lay of these lives: where the trailer's bedrooms sit in relation to one another, whether Monica is any keener on living the simple life, how much Mountain Dew has been left in the bottle. In its essence, Minari is saying something banal - that Korean families are much the same as any other - and there are elements in Chung's writing that prove wholly predictable. Of course we'll keep checking in with those minari seeds gran has planted by the riverbank, until the revelation in a coda that a small part of the American South is now forever Andong. (You don't title your movie that if you're not going to do this.) After the politically and narratively radical Parasite, Minari is Korean-language cinema at its most aesthetically conservative - the kind of movie Academy voters are meant to like. Yet it's banal and predictable in the way family life often is, and in a way anyone looking at American politics and culture in the wake of a violent insurrection might understandably prefer: no-one could have anticipated this while making it, but the film has assumed a symbolic value as the first movie to feel truly of the Biden era. What drama there is here comes in reassuring increments. The feud between David and Soonja starts with an accusation of a "broken dingdong" (her diagnosis for his bedwetting), develops to unintentional pee-drinking, and finally reaches some kind of impasse. (It helps that these two performers, from very different points on the age spectrum, fall into their roles like sitcom veterans heading into a fifth season.) On the horizon, meanwhile, there exists the dream of making it - and that's the real uncertainty here, which is the uncertainty of the migrant experience. We hope it'll all work out as they hope it'll all work out; still, it's in the hands of the Fates.

I wondered whether Minari might draw some of the same accusations of romanticism (not the worst crime, all told) being faced by the current Oscar frontrunner Nomadland - that it all still feels a bit too cosy and rosy, more Jacob than Monica, when Chung finally has to pick a side. Those accusations seem to me to be a little stickier here, at least in reference to the opening ninety minutes. The worst prejudice the family encounters is a bluntly phrased "why's your face so flat?" during a church social, and that's from a kid who's trying to make friends (and does make friends) with David. (At the same event, we hear a new acquaintance of Anna's going through a mental list of nonsense noises until she hits upon a Korean word; this, too, has the ring of small-town xenophobia until you realise she's just trying to speak the language.) Chung's writing becomes slightly more piercing when it comes to outlining the divergent outlooks of the would-be farmer and his wife: in a couple of scenes late on, beautifully played by Yeun and Han, there suddenly seems far more at stake than there ever is in the David-Soonja B plot, or with the cross-carrying Christian down the road. (Always heartening to see indie mainstay Patton in gainful employment, but the role of Paul was a shade too Green Book for my tastes.) This director can't really be claimed as a great visual stylist yet, either: a couple of sub-Malick magic hour shots of David smoking in the fields may provide a sop to the newly incorporated, ever-swelling Steven Yeun Fan Club, but mostly Chung's camera forsakes the big picture to focus on matters closer to home. They remain a happy brood to spend time around, though, and after four years of non-stop kulturkampf - and twelve months in which we've all been exiled from the wider world (and, in many cases, separated from one's own loved ones) - I couldn't blame you if you clung to the film's softness as a comfort, and found in its near-total lack of abrasion some measure of relief. It is a film that will give you a hug, should you need one; in this respect, Minari is unmistakably cinéma du Biden.

Minari is now streaming via Prime Video, Curzon Home Cinema and the BFI Player.

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