Alan S. Kim as David and Youn Yuh-jung as Soonja in 'Minari' (screen grab).
We’re all travellers here, listening to the song of the road, guided by the star of our desires. We stumble often, but we stop and recuperate and then walk again. If we’ve heard these tales before and been touched by them all because somewhere we are all immigrants, searching for a place to call home.
‘Every year, 30,000 Koreans emigrate to the US,’ farmer dad Jacob tells his little son David, ‘Won’t they miss Korean food?’
As a traveller, living far away from home, I missed real Indian food. There was no Whole Foods then, nor did Trader Joes have pickles on their shelves. At Immigration checkpoints Indians were asked if we smuggled in besan laddoos. We bought achaar and papads from Indian grocery stores that just put a Sharpie on the expiry dates on food and sold it gleefully for exorbitant rates. I learnt to drive all the way from Seattle to Vancouver in Canada to eat chaat. So I was rooting for Jacob even when I was horrified to see the house on wheels they had to make their home.
The story of the family who wants to get away from the paying but soul killing job of separating chickens in California to the ‘hillbilly’ farm lands in Arkansas will resonate with so many of us. We study hard, and get away either to the Gulf to work night and day to make money (dare not write about how hard it is to work there. We get away to the ‘States-side’ and even though life does get comfortable for the second and third generation kids who are barely ‘Indian’, you do not forget the trials of being the first one from your family to step outside the comfort zone. We also have examples of living in the city and dream of wanting to live away up in the mountains.
Minari is a tribute to all immigrants. Jacob, Monica and their two kids move to a farm, and not because you are binge watching K-dramas do you want them to succeed. The drive up to their ‘farm’ is rural and you know instinctively that the family would have to try hard to fit in what seems like an all-white rural countryside with only 15 families that look like them. Many years ago, in xenophobic Hong Kong It was fun to mix languages, ‘Roko, m’goi!’ in order to get off the mini bus. If you yelled loud enough, the driver would stop! Monica missed the social interaction, so they go to church. They stand out like a sore thumb, but they try. The kids adapt easily. David walks away from a little boy at church who asks him why his face is flat, but he’s shown spending the night at that boy’s home when the parents are looking after grandma.
Grandma comes all the way to their farm to look after the kids so the parents can work during the day. You’ve seen that happen, right? Perhaps asked your own mum and dad to come to you to take care of the ‘new baby’ while you went back to work? Not realising that they would need you to drive them everywhere; that staying at home all day for you to come back only to be taken to a Walmart was not exactly the America they wanted to see… David takes his time to get along with grandma and the grandma is just wonderful. She’s not the picturebook granny who tells stories, bakes cookies and tucks you into bed. She did bring goodies with her (Monica bursting into tears upon seeing gochugaru - Korean chilli peppers), but her gift for the baby of the family is a pack of cards, so ‘he can beat the bastards’ when he grows up… She teaches life lessons to the little boy: don’t throw rocks at the snake, it might hide and hidden dangers are scarier than the enemy you can see.
Such brilliant writing and so simple. As the young people today will say, life is ‘epic’, and then you’ll see Paul hauling a cross literally on his shoulder because that’s his church. Our extended families are equally weird, no? Your new age friend will send you sage to smudge, to burn the negative energy, or bring back an evil eye bracelet from her trip to Istanbul. Paul exorcises the bad spirits when granny falls ill and even though Jacob does not like it, he lets Monica do this for her mum and peace of mind. I wish the film had got into the mind of the daughter who seems to be more like her mum. Monica and Jacob are fighting most of the time, but you know there was love there. She helps him wash off the day’s grit and back ache but is honest with him about leaving him. Their marriage is coming apart even though we see the children adjust to their new home and having grandma around, crops growing.
The final confrontation is so real, I had to stop the film and reach out for my cup of tea. Remember the argument in Marriage Story (starring Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson)? Are couples together when things are good because they do not wish to see that the relationship is beyond repair? The shot of the kids in the car while Jacob and Monica had that final confrontation reminded me of how we were sent off to our rooms when the grown ups were discussing ‘grown up’ things.
Learn these names: Youn Yuh-jung (she won the best supporting actor as grandma Soonja), Steven Yuen (Jacob), Han Ye-ri (Monica), the cute Alan S. Kim (David) and Noel Cho (Anne, their daughter), because our world is already inclusive (the list of awards the film has collected is beyond impressive) and we need to find heroes in the most unlikely spaces - an Arkansas farm growing Korean vegetables. Director Lee Isaac Chung has said in his many interviews that it was his story in many ways...
And yes, the sudden and yet brilliant end to the film. A fitting one because the few seeds that grandma got are growing very well. Just like immigrants everywhere do. They thrive in the most adverse circumstances and can grow just like the Minari plant. The plant is used in many foods and has a bittersweet taste (the closest description is that it tastes like carrots and celery). The plant signifies the immigrant life. It is hardy, and grows without too much supervision (as long as you choose the right spot to plant it), and goes well with all kinds of foods, and yes, it purifies the muddy stream near which it grows. Such a relatable story that has just been released on Amazon Prime Video when you’re finding it tough to live in an enclosed space with your family!
Manisha Lakhe is a poet, film critic, traveller, founder of Caferati — an online writer’s forum, hosts Mumbai’s oldest open mic, and teaches advertising, films and communication.