Synopsis: A Korean-American family leaves California to pursue farming in Arkansas in the early 1980’s.
Some might say that Minari is about the American Dream and who has a right to pursue it. Others (me) might say that the movie is about an adorable, but cheeky little boy who continually disrespects his grandma.
The little scamp is David (Alan S. Kim) and he looks to be about six years old. He has just moved with his Korean-American family from California to Arkansas. His dad has a plan to grow vegetables favored by Koreans and sell them in the nearest metropolitan areas where there are Korean restaurants and markets. The parents, Jacob and Monica Yi (Steve Yeun and Han Ye-ri) seem perfectly nice. They are in a financially precarious situation, but the boy, David, has what he wants (a pair of cowboy boots), so what does he care?
Little David’s parents immigrated to Cali from Korea. Their own families suffered through the Korean War and the subsequent high unemployment during a military dictatorship. As a young married couple, Monica and David made the bold move to go to the United States and seek a better life. They work sexing chicks i.e., examining day-old chicks to determine if they are male or female. (Females are kept to use as egg laying hens while the male chicks are –this is horrible– dumped into machines that grind them to death. Yes, this is another good reason to turn to veganism.)
The bad boy gives exactly zero f***ks about his heritage or his parents’ sacrifices. Fortunately, David has a sister, Anne (Noel Cho) who is several years older and quite a bit nicer. When the parents begin their day jobs sexing chicks at a nearby poultry processor, the children accompany them. Anne reads and encourages David to read as well. He harumphs at that notion and wanders into the big work space to go bother his parents. His dad brings him outside for a bit and tells him a story about how men and boys should make themselves useful. This makes zero impression on the child.
David’s mom is unhappy. And not just because her son is surly. She doesn’t want to risk all their hard earned savings on farming, a venture plagued by fluctuating crop prices, difficulty obtaining credit and bad weather. But the dad just keeps telling her that the land around their mobile home is the best dirt in America. The dad does deserve credit for working hard though. While he digs for water wells, David sits nearby doing nothing. Sometimes he does stand up and kick at things with his all-important cowboy boots.
The parents argue. The mom wishes they had stayed in California where they had friends and a church nearby. They are isolated out on their property and when they do go to town it is all white people. The church they find is all white people too. You might wonder, so what? I was worried that the people they met would view them as outsiders and/or oddities. Sure enough, after church services one of the boys asks David why his face is so flat. A girl asks young Anne to “stop” her when she comes up with a Korean word; the girl proceeds with uttering gibberish. I mean, how the hell are they supposed to respond to that?
I don’t know how long the growing season is for vegetables, but Minari‘s events seem to take place in a single summer because the kids are never in school. Does the state of Arkansas fund public schools? ( Arkansas ranks 38 out of 50 states in per pupil spending. They spent $10,139 vs the $24,040 spent by the #1 spending state, New York.) In any case, the parents need some help with the kids. They arrange for Monica’s mom to come from South Korea. Sounds great, right? Not to little David!
Monica has not seen her mom since before David was born and is overcome with emotion when she arrives. David hides behind his mom and refuses to say hello. The grandma, Soonja ( Youn Yuh-jung) tries to engage her grandson by teaching him Korean card games. The little egoist is peeved when grandma wins and she does some laughing trash talk with a Korean swear or two.
Grandma does take him for a walk by the creek, which he likes. She tells him that the creek banks would be a good place to grow water celery, aka minari. That’s the name of the movie! I’m always intrigued when a film has a cryptic title and then get excited when they say the title of the movie. I knew that this perennial herb, native to Asia, would be meaningful, because it is the movie’s title. Perhaps Little David will learn respect for his grandma’s ability to garden? Ha! The tiny rabble rouser was more interested in chucking a rock at a nearby snake. You could see that the serpent anticipated that the small human was dangerous.
The boy is wrapped up in his own concerns. He particularly resents that he must share his room with the grandma. He complains to his parents that she “smells like Korea!” I mean, the poor old lady has traveled across the globe and sleeps on the damned floor. But she is happy to be with family and discovers some of the joys of American life, like Mountain Dew and watching professional wrestling on TV.
Still, the bratty kid schemes to get her booted back to Korea. An ongoing grudge he holds against her is that she has Korean ways –doesn’t the kid know he is being a bad grandson and sort of racist? The grandmother, concerned about his health, concocts a broth that he spits out like it’s venom. He rails at his granny that “real grandmothers bake and don’t swear! “
In spite of himself the bad little boy begins to appreciate his grandma. Of course he is too young to appreciate his parents’ troubles, but we feel the mom’s alienation and see the exhaustion as the dad takes a quick cigarette break.
The Yi family’s story is compelling. You’ll want them to achieve their American Dream. I guess, upon reflection, David wasn’t such a bad little kid. The way he acted was developmentally appropriate. And he is super adorable. Come to think of it, granny wasn’t perfect…she did plant a bunch of non-native seeds. God only knows what kind of trouble these potentially invasive plants could cause. But I don’t want to rebuke her when I think of what she put up with from her hardheaded grandson. (Wait til you see what he tricks her with when she asks him to bring her some Mountain Dew! The lesson here– get your own drink instead of trusting a scamp.)
P.S. For more information about the lives of Korean Americans click here
Movie Loon’s Movie Review Shortcut:
Cut to the Chase: The movie’s pacing can be a bit languid, but the characters are engaging thanks to excellent performances by the whole cast.
Humor Highlight: The boy’s stubbornness in accepting his grandmother.