Seven decades and counting after Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman and one might be forgiven for assuming that dramas concerning the bankruptcy of the American Dream had nowhere left to go.
Well, it turns out that Arkansas is a furrow that remains to be ploughed.
Lee Isaac Chung’s poignantly personal drama concerns a family much like his own. In common with the director’s own father, striving Korean immigrant Jacob (Steven Yeun) leaves his job as a chicken sexer in California and drags his family to the middle of the Ozarks, with dreams of selling Korean crops to specialist vendors in Dallas.
Ironically, he continues to work as a chicken sexer in order to pay the water bills on his farm. His wife Monica (Han Ye-ri), who was not consulted about the move, is horrified to see the mobile home they will be living in and disturbed by the distance between the new homestead and the nearest hospital – their sickly son David (Alan Kim) has a heart murmur. “It just gets worse and worse,” she says, as the full extent of their predicament hits.
The unsuccessful hushed domestic disputes that ensue are relayed from David’s perspective. The boy is resentful of Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung), the grandmother who arrives from Korea to take care of David and his teenage sister Anne (Noel Kate Cho) while their parents sex chickens and tend to their ailing farm. Slowly, however, he bonds with his elderly caregiver, who insists that David is stronger than he thinks and encourages him to be physically active.
The planting of “strong, resilient” minari, the water celery of the title, makes for a rather obvious metaphor. Anne, too, seems to disappear from the narrative when her adolescent perspective of life in the back of beyond might have added dramatic clout. But, as the film’s many Oscar nominations suggest, there’s simply no arguing with this delicate and moving semi-autobiographical film.
A wonderful ensemble is repeatedly upstaged by Youn Yuh-jung. Lachlan Milne’s cinematography is lovely and languid. Most admirably, the film is never patronising toward the god-fearing, very white, small-town community it depicts, even if Will Patton’s neighbour insists on hauling around a cross on Sundays. One boy asks David why his face is so flat and once he says it’s not, they shrug it off and become best pals. Anne is not remotely offended when a local girl makes up gibberish words until she says one that Anne recognises in Korean.
It adds up to a rare film about assimilation that can be equally cherished by both poles of the American political landscape. And everybody in between.