cinema and media studies, Film, korea

meditations on Minari (2020) by Lee Issac Chung

[spoiler alert]

My first encounter with a Lee Issac Chung movie was in Busan at the Busan International Film Festival. I was aware of Chung as a filmmaker because I’d worked in film exhibition, distribution and production back in New York and pretty much any Korean American or Korean filmmaker was a part of our awareness or community.

I was at BIFF 2012 in the capacity of a buyer working for a New York film distributer at the time, and the Chung flick I saw was Abigail Harm (2012) starring Amanda Plummer who you’ve seen perform brilliantly in films like Pulp Fiction (1994) and The Fisher King (1991). I was excited to see a Korean American film director’s interpretation of the Korean folktale I’d read as a child–선녀와 나무꾼 or “The Woodcutter and the Nymph.” But it was too daffy of a flick. It felt imbalanced and a bit too experimental and weird for distribution even at a niche/boutique company like the one I was working for at the time. I wanted to like it.

I’ve been aware of Minari for about a year now after reading about it in the trades but when the film started its early release screenings I was hesitant to see it. Part of this has to do with a short clip I saw–the scene of the Yi family at their all-white church in Arkansas. It felt traumatic. Too close to home. I could feel the weight of emotions and mind state of every single Korean character in that short clip.

I finally mustered up the courage to screen it today through UCI’s Korean studies screening event, and I’m glad I saw it. The first thing that left an impression on me is the music. The young composer Emile Mosseri scored Chung’s film with such dreaminess, a moving quietness and sensitivity. Mosseri also scored Miranda July’s latest film Kajillionaire (2020).

The casting was also brilliant. I’ve been following Han Yeri’s performances since 2011 when I saw her in Korean indie films like 다시 태어나고 싶어요, 안양에 (2011) and the indie web-series sit-com 할 수 있는 자가 구하라 (2011) by Yoon Sung-ho. Han played a character with 2 personalities in Yoon’s web-series.

Han’s played diverse roles over the years. You’ve seen her in TV shows (K-Dramas) like Six Flying Dragons and Hello, My Twenties! She’s a versatile actress with great composure and control. I love her work.

Another brilliant casting choice is veteran actress Youn Yuh-jung. She was like a breath of fresh air carrying the family through stuffy and difficult moments. If you want to see Ms. Youn perform in English, check out Hong Sang-soo’s film In Another Country where she’s featured alongside another veteran actress Isabelle Huppert.

Youn’s role as Grandma in Minari got me thinking about all Korean grandmothers’ transgressiveness; how their laxness relative to their children when it comes to the grandchildren breaks open new worlds for the family. Much like how she strays the path to plant minari seeds by the creek where others avoid because of snakes. Much like how she encourages little David to be more active despite his mother’s worries. Much like how she burns down the shed. There is a wisdom to a grandmother’s recklessness. In fact, it’s not at all recklessness. It’s all wisdom.

The film’s editing felt philosophical. The cuts from one scene to the next had seamless transitions and very clearly and directly communicated the filmmaker’s voice (edited by Harry Yoon).

Part of the reason why I said that the film felt traumatic is because of its deep familiarity for me as a Korean emigre and Korean American who’s assimilated over the years (still assimilating/still resisting). The success of Minari is how well the characters collate. I, too, grew up with a younger brother and a mother and father. We moved around often since we landed in Brooklyn from Busan. Went to Jersey for a few years then to Rockland County, New York where we had to adjust to an all-white community.

Watching Jacob (Steve Yeun) get in touch with the earth and wanting to pursue farm work is another familiar thing I grew up with. Many Koreans have seen this, in fact, and it’s hard not to considering the agrarian country that Korea is. Most folks from the countryside in Korea know what farming is.

My parents had gardens all throughout the years we spent in America. Even in Brooklyn, I recall my parents forcing their way through the locked gate next to our apartment building and growing perilla. In Jersey, they tilled soil in our backyard and grew everything from red leaf lettuce to tomatoes to red peppers to cucumbers, and we ate what we picked all summer long.

They did the same when we moved to Rockland County.

I was particularly struck by the church scene when the white kids ask Anne and David insensitive questions but with open sincerity and earnestness. It was handled with such realism. That’s usually how those moments are. No one’s really mad in the moment or wishing to offend in the moment. It’s just a moment. The categorizing and emotional response to said categorization come way later when we are adults and looking back.

There were so many shots that struck me as messages from one Korean American to another Korean American. The shot of the wedding photograph, for instance, felt especially authentic–the unsmiling dad. The angry dad. The dad with his ego and dignity. His 자존심 (read arrogance). The scene of the parents screaming/fighting was also very familiar. The young immigrant parents with two young kids in tow, feeling worn out. Feeling hopeless but wanting to survive. Wanting to live a happy life. But feeling trapped. Feeling lost.

The shot of the television screen with Korean singers singing 사랑해 (I Love You) was another philosophical moment. In the early post-Korean War years, there were so many photographs of Korean war orphans or Korean war brides watching television as part of their assimilation process–to make them familiar or palatable for white Americans. But here I saw something quite different–the television as a way back home.

This is a constant for me. Whenever I watch Korean TV, it is me finding my way back home–and not even back. More like catching up. I’m staying apprised of what’s going on in Korea (I am still assimilating/still resisting). This gives me another way to consider TV. It’s a tubed screen that takes immigrants back to their homeland, back to the emotional place they completely left behind and forgot. This is why when Grandma tells the kids that their parents sang this song while staring into each other’s eyes with ga-ga eyes, Monica replies that she can’t remember. The hardship of living abroad has brought a fog over her mind and heart.

Whenever Jacob told David to go get the hwechori it brought back memories of my own beatings. There’s a hilarious pathos to the way that Korean parents forced their kids to go and find the weapon they were going to use in order to beat them with. I loved it when David brought back a lame weed in place of an actual stick for his father to beat him with.

The scene when Grandma pulls out gochugaru and myulchi which brings tears to Monica’s eyes brought tears to mine as well. To this day, my own grandmother sends gochugaru to my mother. Whenever I visit my grandmother back at her farm, she packs me a bottle of cham gireum and a jar of gochu jang.

There’s a big love story in Minari. While Monica lacks confidence in Jacob’s attempts at farming, and on the surface, they both believe that it is all about him and his ego, another way to see it is Jacob wanting to bring a taste of home into his own home for his wife who misses these flavors by insisting on raising Korean crops.

It’s interesting how even though the Yi family left Korea to live in America, they are always seeking Korea in food and in television–a way to be Korean or be in Korea. (Still assimilating/still resisting.)

Maybe mukbang is really an amalgamation of Korean immigrants’ desire for home: watch the food you miss on a screen. Watch it on TV.

I recall seeing Steven Yeun in a mukbang video alongside Sandara Park and Park Hyuk-kwon years ago.

I found Minari to be a deeply meditative experience. It’s an exemplary Korean American movie, and an extremely unique one.