Minari (미나리) is an edible plant popular in Korea, somewhat akin to watercress or parsley in appearance and use. It is resilient; when planted on the shores of a wooded creek in rural Arkansas, it grows. This is the metaphor.
Minari the movie is by the Korean American filmmaker Lee Isaac Chung, and is a semi-autobiographical reflection of his own childhood years on a remote farm in the Ozarks. It is about the farm, but it is mostly about this family, their hopes and hurts and humor. It’s not really a slice-of-life, that doesn’t feel like the right term for something with so much of the softness and piercing poignancy of memory. Maybe like a more grounded Terrence Malick, if you’ll forgive the agriculture pun.
It’s dreamy in the fluid way it moves and in the lingering golden warmth of the light—a movie that warms you just looking at it, even if your heart didn’t feel it too, glowing from within. But it’s not dreamy in the sense of being all sweet weightlessness. Minari folds its delicate layers into something strong, something deep and resonant. It is a flowing drama of the struggles within the souls of these people, and between their souls and the other souls they live with on this land, and their struggles with the land itself—this field, this America.
I respond very feelingly to stories of complexity in ideas and emotions. Contradictory or inconstant notions of nationality and culture, of faith, of gender roles, of what it means to be a partner, a parent, a child, a grandparent—different understandings of all of these experiences and identities slide and glimmer through this movie like sunlight dappled through the trees over the little stream, multi-faceted and ever-shifting. I can’t talk directly about one of my favorite scenes without giving too much away, but I can say that I think part of the reason it rocked me so was the realization that Lee Isaac Chung’s script wasn’t flattening his story into one structural shape that every narrative thread would follow, but instead, like in life, different arcs were having their peaks and valleys on their own time. It means that nothing is one-note, the varied tones drifting in and out of discord and harmony.
Minari is beautiful. Beautiful to watch, beautiful to listen to as my rising fave Emile Mosseri’s score weaves among the lilting hum of insects on the warm air, and beautiful to feel, as the sometimes funny, sometimes bruised nuance of this family’s conflicts and love slips around you. And by the last act, a series of mounting events swept me into the biggest bout of cathartic weeping of any film I’ve seen yet from the 2020 season. I was, simply, bawling. And I think I really needed that right now. If you do too: Minari is finally available to stream in the U.S.