Sundance 2020: Minari, by David Bax
In 1980, Ronald Reagan campaigned heavily to America’s farmers, who were faltering after a decade of rising gas and oil prices and Cold War embargoes, promising to turn things around for them. But by 1985, the first year of Reagan’s second term, things had only gotten worse, leading John Mellencamp, Willie Nelson and Neil Young to start Farm Aid, a charity that puts on an annual concert to this day to benefit struggling American farmers. Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari takes place somewhere in between, when pro-Reagan optimism made starting a farm in the middle of this downturn seem like it might be a good idea. At least that’s what Jacob Yi (Steven Yeun) is told when he moves his family of Korean immigrants from California to rural Arkansas to grow vegetables. America was and continues to be made strong by people from other countries who come here with very little to make something very big of themselves. But, as Jacob finds, that doesn’t mean it’s always easy.
Jacob is excited about the family’s new home but his wife, Monica (Han Ye-ri), has concerns, especially considering how far they are from a hospital, given that their younger child, David (Alan S. Kim), has chronic heart problems. Meanwhile, older sibling Anne (Noel Cho) is approaching the age of American childhood where she’s not going to be happy with her parents no matter what. Help on the farm comes in the form of a neighbor, Paul (Will Patton), and help in babysitting comes from Monica’s mother, Soonja (Youn Yuh-jung). But they may not be enough to save Jacob and Monica’s marriage.
Those of us who live in big cities are accustomed to a certain kind of noise (engines and sirens and neighbors) so it can come as a surprise when we visit the countryside and realize that nature makes noise too. Minari goes a long way toward making us sympathize with Jacob’s warm feelings in regards to The Natural State with the ever-present, soft blanket of chirps and buzzes; people in cities pay for machines that sound like this to help them fall asleep. Despite its prevailing quietness, Minari is so full of life you can feel it (Lachlan Milne’s tactile photography certainly helps).
If you’re like Jacob’s new friend Paul, there’s a name for that constant presence: God. Paul talks to God frequently, while out in the fields or when invited to share a meal in the Yis’ home. God exists for them, too, but more discreetly. Monica and the children pray at night but going to church is more of a social (or, rather, assimilating) function.
Concerns about fitting in with the neighbors might seem small compared to those about the nature of God or of wondering how to define a successful life. But Minari‘s beautiful magic is found in its sincere belief that all these matters are an integral part of being alive. Whether you’re worrying about your place in your family, your town, the world or the afterlife, you’re engaged in the kind of everyday philosophical consideration that an examined life is made up of.