Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Minari: The Family That Grows Together . . .

We’re all too aware that this is a tough time to be an Asian American. Last week’s shooting at three Atlanta massage parlors took the lives of eight people, six of them Asian-American women. Elsewhere in the U.S., there’s been a spate of street attacks on elderly folks who have the bad luck to have Asian-looking faces. Alas, their ancestry makes them ripe for being blamed for introducing the COVID-19 virus, which seems to have begun in Wuhan, China.

 Here’s the irony: at the same time that many Asian-Americans are cowering in fear, the American film community has bestowed a bumper crop of awards nominations on Asian-American projects. Beijing-born Chloé Zhao, who’s quickly becoming one of the foremost chroniclers of the American West, has been personally nominated for four Oscars as producer, director, writer, and editor of Nomadland. Riz Ahmed, whose Pakistani birth makes him officially Southeast Asian, is up for Best Actor for his role in the engrossing Sound of Metal. And, of course, one of the eight Best Picture nominees is a true immigrant story, based on the life of an Korean family not far removed from the filmmaker’s own. 

 Minari is a small, modest film, which in most non-COVID years may have been better suited to the Indie Spirit awards than the Oscars. (This year it’s up for six of each.) Like Nomadland, it’s a labor of love on the part of a rising filmmaker who both wrote and directed. But Lee Isaac Chung, a Korean immigrants’ son who was raised on a small farm in rural Arkansas, shaped an original story out of something close to his own family experience. The foursome in the film—father Jacob, mother Monica, daughter Anne, and the adorable little David—hunker down in a mobile home on a small, untamed plot of land because Jacob (eager to leave behind his dispiriting California life as a chicken sexer) can’t wait to work the soil. His wife is less than pleased by their lonely, somewhat grubby new existence, especially since young David has heart issues that could end his life at any moment. The arrival of Monica’s fresh-off-the-boat mother, the feisty and unpredictable Soonja (in an Oscar-worthy performance by Korean star Youn Yuh-Jung), complicates matters further. Clearly, something explosive is about to happen.

 Happily, given the times in which we live, the family is not done in by racism. The locals (at church and elsewhere) are quick to show off their ignorance of Korea, but they never stoop to cruelty. And a holy-roller type whose impromptu religious rituals make him an object of derision in this locale becomes something of a true friend.

 Those who disdain reading subtitles will not be fans of Minari. In a nod to authenticity, a vast amount of the family interaction is conducted in Korean, with an American phrase thrown in from time to time as immigrants are wont to do. When family members communicate with the outside world, they manage in English, but the Korean language predominates. That’s partly why the Golden Globes folks, never known for being socially progressive, put Minari in their Best Foreign Language Film category, which it handily won. Given that the U.S. is a country of many languages and cultures, it would have been nice to see this film included as one of the evening’s top “bests,” but never mind.

 By the way, the all-important “minari” turns out to be water celery or Java waterdropwart. I have no idea what that is, but in future I’ll look at the Korean vegetables at my local farmer’s market with new respect.



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