Making it in the Midwest

Art & Culture | Mark Warburton 6 Apr 2021

Indie company A24 continues to shine with this heart-felt ode to Korean tenacity. At a time where identity politics is the go-to game in town, Minari cuts a different path, focusing on a turbulent move to rural Arkansas from California; a move that sees Jacob (played by Steven Yuen) and his young family attempt to settle a produce farm.


Generational cultural clash provides us with much of the story’s tension, spotlighting the uneasy relationship between the newly arrived, quirky grandmother, and culturally assimilated grandchildren. The dynamic is an interesting one given it breaks from audience expectations. Grandmother Soon-ja is a complex character, far removed from the Easterb Asian caricature of a disapproving, traditionally conservative elder.  


Familial divides are eventually sutured. The water celery, Minari, and the card game, Godori, work as motifs for the growing understanding fostered between Soon-ja and little David; especially during their trips to collect the titular plant. Additionally, Godori provides a social link to both Soonja and the children’s WASP friends, helping to unite the children with both their deep heritage and local community.  


Youn Yuh-jung as Soon-ja is phenomenal, arousing much of the laughter and tears. Both Steven Yeun and Han Ye-ri also excel, their relationship is organic, the building tensions between their shifting needs aren’t choreographed or stilted. Most notably, however, is Lachlan Milne, the cinematographer, who emulates an East Asian cinematic aesthetic; his gentle, naturalistic gaze compliments the soft pacing of the script, beautifully capturing the rustic fields of the midwest.


The film ends positively: frontier ethics intertwine with Jacob’s unrelenting efforts to provide for his family and make them proud. American graft and Korean determination might have different genealogies - manifest destiny and oriental shame culture, respectively - yet they share the same life-affirming drive for success.


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