In this year’s awards race, Lee Isaac Chung enjoys autobiographical immigrant drama MINARI – WHERE WE TAKE ROOTS Favorite status. Reason enough to take a closer look at the American production, which won the Golden Globe for “Best Foreign Language Film” this year. You can find out more about him in our review.
OT: Minari (USA 2020)
Jacob (Steven Yeun) decides to move his Korean-American family from Los Angeles to a small farm in Arkansas. While he sees the wild Ozarks as the promised land, his wife Monica (Ye-Ri Han) and children David (Alan Kim) and Anne (Noel Kate Cho) feel alien in their new home. The family’s coexistence is suddenly turned upside down when the smart, quick-witted and incredibly loving grandmother Soon-Ja (Yuh-Jung Youn) leaves her homeland of Korea and moves to the USA to live with them. Over time, Soon-Ja finds an ally in her curious, rebellious grandson David. Together they manage to re-establish the magical bond between the family members despite all the setbacks and difficulties, thereby paving the way for a hopeful future together.
Long before “Minari – Where We Put Down Roots” slowly worked its way into the mainstream consciousness through its countless nominations (six for the Oscar alone), Lee Isaac Chung’s immigrant drama was a controversial part of film coverage. The reason: The project received a nomination for “Best Foreign Language Film” at the Golden Globe Awards earlier this year – even though a not insignificant proportion of the language spoken in “Minari” is English. The limit set by the Golden Globe statutes is 50 percent. Films whose foreign language content is below this mark are not considered in this category. And since “Minari” meets this requirement, it was allowed to fight for the foreign language globe – even though the film was 100 percent financed with US funds and therefore a US film (co-supervised by Brad Pitt’s company Plan B., among others). production is. But the devil is in the details: After all, it’s called “Best Foreign Language Film” and not “Best Foreign Film”, like at the Oscars. Here, “Minari” was nominated directly as “Best Film”. This struggle over right and wrong categorizations in film awards ultimately has no impact on the actual quality of the film, but the additional boost in attention from press reports is likely to benefit author and director Lee Isaac Chung (“Lucky Life”) have come in handy in the meantime. Just like the fact that the Academy has been officially receptive to Asian winners since the last awards season – “Parasite” was the first Korean film to win “Best Film” in 2020, the leading actor Steven Yeun and supporting actress Yoon, who were also nominated, could Yeo-jeong will now be the first South Korean winners in their respective categories.
The family receives a warm welcome in the church of their new home in California.
While last year “Parasite” forced Academy members to actively engage with their existing viewing habits, this time Lee Isaac Chung is making it relatively easy for them to get involved with “Minari – Where We Put Down Roots”. Although the main roles are exclusively played by South Korean actors, there is nothing in the production that reminds us that the head behind the project is also of Korean origin and incorporated the experiences of his family, who immigrated to the States, into his film. This closeness to the subject matter is noted in “Minari” as well as the fact that the film was primarily made for a US market (although it will certainly be a challenge for the lazy US audience to use subtitles for around half of the film’s running time to be able to understand the Korean parts). The great strengths include, above all, the precise ability to observe the everyday life of South Korean immigrants in the United States as well as the inner conflict of the family portrayed here, which is constantly discussed in the film, when it comes to remaining true to their origins and yet not to close their eyes to the opportunities that their new homeland opens up for them. In addition, Lee Isaac Chung refrains in several places from opening up “Minari” to the (admittedly, unfortunately obvious) topic of racism. Whenever the family meets US residents, they are met with friendliness and accommodating. “Minari” is therefore not a reckoning with the American dream, but is primarily concerned with how complex the pursuit of this dream can be for people who hope for a better life in the USA than in their homeland.
“While “Parasite” forced Academy members to actively engage with their existing viewing habits last year, this time Lee Isaac Chung is making it relatively easy for them to get involved in “Minari – Where We Put Down Roots”.”
Above all, the coexistence spanning several generations under one roof, illustrated here, offers the filmmaker numerous opportunities to bring his knowledge of the diverse emotional lives of Korean immigrant families to the screen. This ranges from hilarious anecdotes like this one about the little son David giving his own urine to his grandmother, whom he hates (at first), to very touching moments, for example when the kids desperately try to stop their parents from arguing loudly. But not all moments in “Minari” have something so truthful about them. In particular, the open conflicts between Jacob and his wife Monica serve their purpose a little too clearly: to highlight the different approaches to a new beginning in a foreign country in the style of a veiled pro-contra debate. In general, every little script detail in “Minari” seems to have a purpose. You can find that strong because it means those responsible never dwell on trivial things. At the same time, the film also loses some of its authenticity due to this precise advance planning of when and why which little detail will be taken up again. The processes described in “Minari” are just a little bit to perfect, so that in the end they passed as universally valid. As a result, the plot sometimes seems more contrived than is good for the atmosphere.
Steven Yeun, Alan S. Kim, Yuh-Jung Youn, Ye-ri Han and Noel Cho are the award-winning cast of “Minari.”
Symptomatic of this is a seven-minute scene in which the grandmother Soon-Ja explains the meaning of the film title in a monologue. “Minari” is named after the plant of the same name, whose special feature is that it can take root pretty much anywhere and spread like a weed. Lee Isaac Chung not only lets actress Yuh-Jung Youn formulate this symbolic image of the Korean family, which is able to “put down roots” even in a foreign country, in detail and several times, but also illustrates the scene with it , that Soon-Ja sows seeds of the Minari plant on a stream, whereupon this same stream is covered with Minari vines in the very last shot of the film. It may be skillfully written and directed how Chung prepares this final shot in the first third of the film to close the circle in the last seconds of the film. And yet this decision also underlines – especially in combination with the penetrating significance of the title – how well “Minari” serves the viewing habits of a broad (and primarily US) audience. The final impression is that one can hardly avoid the assumption that some dialogue and/or film decisions exist solely to express what is unsaid (but is already clearly visible in its meaning for the content) for all those for whom subtly scattered, non-verbal clues are not enough . We wouldn’t have been surprised if Lee Isaac Chung had relied on something like an explanatory voice-over in the finale to recap the moral of the story – regardless of how much of this plan was his creative decision and how much was a calculated producer’s decision would have been.
“The final impression is that one can hardly avoid the assumption that some dialogue and/or film decisions exist solely to express what is unsaid (but clearly visible in its meaning for the content) for all those for whom subtly scattered non-verbal clues are not enough. “
Such gross motor skills “Tell, don’t show!”-Decisions have a strong impact on how sensitive Chung’s instructions to the actors are. Steven Yeun (“OK yes”) and Ye Ri Han (“Save the Zoo”) never convince much game, but through a nuanced exploration of their subliminal emotions, which makes the family’s interpersonal interaction particularly believable. In view of the always shining respect for the decisions she makes, it is all the more surprising how Chung closes another of his countless narrative circles on the home stretch (keyword: dowsing rod). The protagonists, who had previously been so cleverly drawn, are suddenly shown in such a naive light that a mildly bitter aftertaste is left behind.
Conclusion: “Minari – Where We Put Down Roots” is largely a closely observed, gentle examination of the lives of South Korean immigrant families in the USA. But precisely because director and author Lee Isaac Chung is so subtle and precise in many of his observations, some of the more artistic decisions are even more irritating, making the film seem more striking and constructed than it usually is.
“Minari – Where We Put Down Roots” can be seen in USA cinemas from July 15, 2021.