Great filmmakers are fluent in the darkness of silence, and Lee Isaac Chung is no exception. There is one devastating suspension of dialogue halfway through his largely autobiographical film, Minari, about a Korean immigrant family trying to build a life in rural Arkansas during the early 1980s.
In the scene, the Yi family’s mother, Monica (Han Ye-ri) is washing the hair of her husband Jacob (Steven Yeun), who is exhausted by the physical labour of starting a vegetable farm on their ramshackle trailer plot in the Ozarks. The farm is a potentially hare-brained scheme: Monica doesn’t believe in it. She wants to return to California, their first stop in the US.
As Monica lathers his hair, Jacob tells her: “If the farm fails, you can leave with the kids.” She does not respond, and simply proceeds to rinse his hair, with a gentleness we cannot be sure is tender. The blade of the ensuing long silence is triple-edged: it summons both her woundedness and his woundedness — and wounds the viewer as a bonus.
Thankfully Minari, which is now streaming on Showmax and a hot Oscars tip, is nothing like as unendurable as that scene. It’s a loving study of a pioneer family, pursuing an Asian version of a Western myth, and constantly on the edge of exploding. Although it nods to the vulnerability of the immigrant, it is really about the vulnerability of being a parent and a spouse.
It figures that Chung, who is 42, made it when he was on the brink of giving up filmmaking; he had previously released three obscure and much more experimental films.
Minari emerged from a collection of Chung’s childhood memories. Like Monica and Steven, his parents started out in Arkansas as chicken-sexers in a hatchery, while his father pursued his frontier dream of coaxing life from soil.
And like little David Yi, the film’s five-year-old protagonist, young Chung and his older sister were gobsmacked by the arrival in Arkansas of his card-playing, foul-mouthed grandmother, straight outta Korea.
The grandma, Soon-ja, is played with crackling brio by Youn Yuh-jung, a grand dame of Korean cinema since the early 1970s. From the motherland, Soon-ja brings a stock of minari, a tasty Korean herb, and plants the seeds on the bank of a creek at the bottom of the plot. Minari is a proxy for Soon-ja’s chutzpah. She is exasperated by the anxiety and religiosity of her daughter and son-in-law; for her, like many older people, living in fear is highly overrated.
Chung’s actual grandmother is dead, but his parents and his sister are very much alive. That presents a major complication for any artist exposing a family history this intimate, regardless of the fig leaf of fictionalisation.
Chung’s mother is a lifelong fan of Yuh-jung, and asked her son about the role she had been cast in. He told NPR in March: “And I said, ‘Well, she’s this grandmother.’ And then I told them, ‘And there’s a mom and a dad and there are two kids and they live in a trailer home.’ And I didn’t tell them that this is our family’s story, but obviously my mom is starting to piece things together. And I think it made my parents even more nervous that I was not coming completely clean to them, that I would not tell them, ‘This is our story’.”
So Chung was understandably anxious when he showed the final cut to his parents and his sister at a Thanksgiving gathering in 2019. A lot of blubbering ensued, and nobody left home.