While watching Minari, I couldn’t help but think: is farming the saddest profession? With so many variables out of your control, a happy and successful farmer would seem to be the exception to the rule. Farming requires you to deal with the weather, pricing futures, insects, water (or the lack thereof), the physical toll, bank loans, and so on, any of which could leave you teetering on the brink of insolvency. Being a farmer requires incredible fortitude, physical as well as mental. You have to fully acquiesce to whatever fate may bring you, good or bad. Minari fits squarely into the “tough life of the farmer” category of movies, and acquits itself well as a drama. Definitely recommended.
Minari is similar to Places in the Heart (1984), in that both chronicle the trials and tribulations of farming, where effort, dedication and perseverance is just as likely to yield heartbreak as success. In fact, if what farming movies tell us is to be believed, the central precept to farming is to accept failure first and foremost. That way, when you do have a successful crop and can sell it at a good price, you’ll be extremely grateful at the outcome. (I don’t know any actual farmers, so I can’t confirm with any certainty that rule number one is “be pessimistic”.)
In Minari, Steven Yeun stars as Jacob, the father of the Yi family. Set in the 1980’s, Jacob has grown weary of sexing chicks in California. I never knew that was an actual job. Or that male chickens taste worse than female chickens, and end up being “discarded”. Jacob decides he wants to follow his dream of being a farmer and purchases a fifty acre farm in Arkansas, untroubled by the fact that the previous owner met with financial ruin and committed suicide. Jacob believes that he can tap into the growing Korean immigrant market and sell them the fresh vegetables they need for traditional Korean dishes. Jacob is confident that his decision will make him happy and provide for a better life for his family. At first, his wife Monica (Yeri Han) is on board, but her doubts about their new life become apparent one night when they have to deal with a potential tornado. (Fortunately, the tornado never evolves from a “watch” to a “warning”.)
Before he can proceed with farming, Jacob needs to establish a water source for his crops. Jacob is suspicious of the local water diviner, so he drills a well where his logical reasoning posits the water would be (downhill, close to a nearby forest and stream). This decision increasingly turns out to be a bad one, forcing Jacob to pay the county for water, which in turn drains the family finances.
Jacob makes friends with Paul (Will Patton), the man who sold him a tractor. Initially, he declines Paul’s offer to help with the farming by driving the tractor. Eventually Jacob brings Paul on to help with the planting the crops. While Jacob respects Paul’s knowledge of farming, he does not understand his religious beliefs. When Jacob blesses the crops (and later the family home), his prayers devolve into what sounds like speaking in tongues. On Sundays, Paul walks up and down the main road carrying a huge cross. Patton’s performance is eccentric but genuine, and probably should have earned him more critical recognition.
While the Yi family are the “fish out of water” in Minari, the movie puts the foreigners at the center of the story. This approach provides a fresh perspective on the life of a typical farming family. For the most part, the locals are welcoming and accepting of the Yi family. They are greeted warmly at church, during the service and at the reception afterwards. What racism there is in the Yi’s adopted community is under the surface, with rare exception. During the church reception, a child asks Anne (the daughter, played by Noel Cho) if she recognizes any of the words in a racist nursery rhyme. The white child seems completely unaware that the rhyme is racist, and the daughter’s reaction to it is difficult to read. I don’t believe the white child was trying to be racist, and instead was trying to relate to Anne in the only way she could think of. (In today’s parlance, this episode would be termed a microaggression.)
David (the son, played by Alan S. Kim) becomes friends with a schoolmate who invites him to a sleepover. They bond over a cultural exchange: the white boy has David try chewing tobacco, while David teaches his friend how to play a traditional Korean card game known as “Go Stop”. Over breakfast the following morning, the white boy’s father tells David about the fate of the previous owner of his father’s farm, something that David doesn’t know how to process. David and Anne’s experience as a second-generation immigrant is typical: they are much more accepting of their adoptive country’s ways, preferring to drink Mountain Dew. When David is forced to drink a broth made with Korean ingredients, including deer antler, he looks at it like its poison.
As the movie plays out, we realize that Jacob’s decision was his alone, and that Monica went along with it to make him happy. While Jacob is fine with getting his hands into the dirt and working hard all day, Monica misses the Korean community they had back in California. Jacob has his mother come from Korea to stay with them, so that she can watch the children while Monica goes into town. At first, Monica seems happy to have a direct link to the life she used to have in California and Korea, but it only goes so far. Jacob resents that Monica never really accepted farming as the answer to their family’s success and happiness. He wants to devote his working years to something he is passionate about, while for Monica, a job is just a means to an end. Monica is happy to continue sexing chickens if that means she could live closer to the city. (She brings chickens home to practice.) Jacob and Monica’s growing rift is based on a typical marital problem: they each made sacrifices for the other, and don’t feel that their sacrifices are appreciated. On another level, they view their lives fundamentally differently: Jacob focusing on what they have, while Monica focuses on what they’ve lost. (Half-full versus half-empty, optimist versus pessimist, the eternal struggle.)
Minari also features a generational clash, between young David and his grandmother, Soon-ja (Yuh-jung Youn). At first, David is afraid to be around her. He doesn’t like her at all. She smells “Korean” and (to him) doesn’t act like a real grandmother. She prefers to watch wrestling on TV instead of doing grandmotherly-like things, although David never explains how he expects her to behave. After David plays a mean prank on Soon-ja, and Jacob wants to punish him by whipping him with a stick, she forgives him. The two end up bonding over their shared love of exploring the land around the farm. In the end, even though Soon-ja was brought over from Korea to be a babysitter, her actions (intentional and unintentional) end up saving the family.
As I mentioned earlier, the plot of Minari features many problems I would think are typical to farming, or at least farming in the eighties: water issues, buyers who pull out at the last minute, mounting debts, fire. What is surprising in Minari is that racism isn’t something that holds Jacob back from being successful. It is his own suspicion and stubbornness. Instead of growing crops that anyone would be interested in buying, Jacob grows Korean vegetables. He’s competing with growers in California, whose produce may not be as fresh as his to local Arkansas buyers, but those California farmers are proven and established suppliers. Just because Jacob is Korean doesn’t mean that the local buyers will immediately switch over to him, or that the farmers in California won’t decide to aggressively compete with him on price. While the movie never says this, I think the reason why Jacob doesn’t encounter any problems with the locals is that they know that choosing the life of a farmer is essentially choosing a life of misery. There’s no need for them to go out of their way to create problems for Jacob: farming will bring him plenty to deal with.
The movie does pile on the misery a bit too much in the last act. A cardiologist tells Jacob and Monica that the hole in David’s heart is repairing itself. (The Arkansas way of life is good for him!) On the same trip into the city, Jacob finds a new buyer for his produce. In spite of these positive events, Monica tells Jacob she wants to take the kids back to California. While Jacob believes that after a rough patch, everything will be fine now, Monica is convinced that their recent struggles exposed that they aren’t on the same page, and wants a divorce. Then, an accidental fire wipes out his store. From a plot perspective, I thought that the story was being unnecessarily cruel. However, the fire did force Jacob to realize he loves his wife, and that she does care about his dream. It wouldn’t be a farming movie without some melodrama, right?
While Minari doesn’t feature an original plot, its decision to feature immigrants in the story is novel and inciteful. Many people have dreams of becoming a farmer in America, not just Americans. And while some culture clash is expected, the real drama is in how those immigrants adapt to a way of life that is very different from what they have known. For Jacob, farming rewards independence and self-reliance, but for Monica, it brings isolation and loneliness. For the grandmother, it’s a way to reunite with her family, but leaves her vulnerable when she encounters health issues. For the children, it’s a way to be closer to nature, but also leaves them vulnerable to cultural issues they may not be prepared to deal with.
Minari left me feeling sad for the characters throughout, both for lives and security they gave up for their new life, as well as for the trials and tribulations their new life has brought. In the end, the story of Jacob, Monica, Anne and David is that of life itself: learning to adapt, overcoming adversity and sticking by each other throughout. Because in the end, all we have is each other.
(In case you were wondering, minari looks like American parsley, and is also referred to as “Chinese celery”.)