Filmed in Oklahoma but set in Arkansas, the 2020 movie Minari tells the story of a Korean family who moved from California to the rural Ozarks due to the father’s hopes of establishing himself as a farmer of Korean vegetables. The movie, based upon the family experiences of writer/director Lee Isaac Chung, himself an Arkansas native, received near universal praise from critics and was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
The movie opens with the Yi family—father Jacob (Steven Yeun), mother Monica (Yeri Han), daughter Anne (Noel Kate Cho), and son David (Alan S. Kim)—moving into a mobile home situated on a patch of farmland in northwestern Arkansas. The exact location is not specified, but it is mentioned during the course of the movie that Rogers (Benton County) lies at an hour’s distance. Monica is immediately disenchanted with their living arrangement and regularly suggests moving back to California. She is especially worried about her son, who has a heart murmur, living so far from a hospital. Jacob and Monica work at a local poultry plant where they “sex” the chicks—that is, separate them by sex, with the females being saved for egg-laying and meat purposes, and the males being destroyed in an incinerator. Jacob even tells his son that it is incumbent upon them, as males, to be good so that they are not similarly discarded.
Eventually, the stress of raising two children in rural Arkansas while working full-time jobs necessitates the couple bringing Monica’s mother, Soonja (Yuh-Jung Youn), from Korea to live with them and help care for the children. But David resents sharing his room with her and says that she is not a “proper grandmother” like the type who “bakes cookies.” Instead, she watches professional wrestling and teaches the children how to curse and gamble. However, they soon form a relationship, and Soonja finds a location on the property, near a creek, where she plants minari, an East Asian plant of the water dropwort genus used in Korean cuisine and as a medicine.
The increasing debt of Jacob’s farming operation causes fractures in the parents’ marriage. In addition, Soonja has a stroke that leaves her partially disabled. Monica wants to move back to California, and when offered a choice of staying in Arkansas or returning to California with the family, Jacob insists that his children need to see him succeed. On a visit to Oklahoma City, the family learns that David’s heart murmur seems to be healing without the need for surgery, and Jacob makes a deal to sell his produce to a local Korean market. However, when the family returns to their farm, they find their barn in flames. Soonja had attempted to burn trash in their absence, and the fire got out of control, engulfing the structure where Jacob had been storing all his freshly harvested produce. Jacob and Monica rush into the fire, attempting to save the produce, but when Monica succumbs to the smoke, Jacob finds her and takes her outside to safety. The movie ends with Jacob hiring a water dowser to locate a new well and going down to the creek to harvest the minari.
Writer/director Chung based Minari on his own experiences growing up in Lincoln (Washington County). In an interview with the Arkansas Times, he stressed that he intended the film to be much more evocative of locality: “Everyone always talks about the immigrant stuff. To me, this is an Arkansas story or a farming story.” His own parents had moved to Arkansas when he was between two and five years old, and like the parents in the movie, they worked sexing chickens and growing produce for the Korean American market, especially Korean pears. Eventually, his grandmother came to live with them. Too, the family knew someone like the character Paul (Will Patton), who works on the family farm but also speaks in tongues and spends his Sundays carrying a large, wooden cross through local gravel roads. Chung pieced together the narrative from his own memories and occasionally asked probing questions from his family, not telling them that he was planning a story of their own life until he was able to screen the film for them: “I was incredibly nervous about them finding out what I was doing. They’re private people, and I felt like I might be doing an injustice in some ways by writing a story about them and trying to represent their perspectives and stuff without letting them write it, not giving them the agency to write it. But I just felt this real need to tell this story.” The family, however, loved the movie.
Minari premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on January 26, 2020, and won both the grand jury prize and the audience award. It also received multiple awards nominations for the Screen Actors Guild Awards, Critics’ Choice Movie Awards, Independent Spirit Awards, and the British Film Academy Awards (BAFTAs), among others. In addition, it received the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film, an award that proved controversial, given that Minari was not a foreign film. The Golden Globes defended the nomination by reference to their criteria of “foreign-language film” being a movie in which more than half the dialogue is in a non-English language, but others, including many Asian American actors and filmmakers, perceived the categorization of Minari, a movie lauded for being “quintessentially American,” as evidence of the persistence of anti-Asian prejudice.
Youn received the award for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Supporting Role from the Screen Actors Guild.
Minari was nominated for six Academy Awards: for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay (Lee Isaac Chung), Best Actor (Steven Yeun) (the first Asian American to be nominated for Best Actor), Best Supporting Actress (Yuh-Jung Youn), and Best Original Score (Emile Mosseri); Youn won for Best Supporting Actress, the first Korean ever to win that award.
For additional information:
Eifling, Sam. “Immigrant Song.” Arkansas Times, February 2021, pp. 23–25. Online at https://arktimes.com/entertainment/2021/02/02/minari-director-lee-isaac-chung-talks-korean-pears-growing-up-in-rural-arkansas-and-reimagining-the-protagonis (accessed July 16, 2021).
Martin, Philip. “Steeped in Memory.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, February 12, 2021, pp. 1E, 6E.
“Minari.” Internet Movie Database. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt10633456/ (accessed July 16, 2021).
Romney, Johnathan. “My Friends Back in Arkansas Are the Audience I Wanted to Connect With.” The Guardian, March 7, 2021. https://www.theguardian.com/film/2021/mar/07/lee-isaac-chung-minari-korea-arkansas-oscars (accessed July 16, 2021).
Smittle, Stephanie. “Why an Arkansas Film Called Minari Is in the Golden Globes Foreign Language Category and Why That’s a Problem.” Arkansas Times, March 2, 2021. https://arktimes.com/entertainment/2021/02/03/why-an-arkansas-film-called-minari-is-in-the-golden-globes-foreign-language-category-and-why-thats-a-problem (accessed July 16, 2021).
Venugopal, Arun. “Lee Isaac Chung Jotted Down Some Family Memories—They Became Minari.” National Public Radio, March 3, 2021. https://www.npr.org/2021/03/03/973262034/lee-isaac-chung-jotted-down-some-family-memories-they-became-minari?fbclid=IwAR0_oE4qY97d5ufjxS9wE1eVzESt13zDdzrkcFh-l8RWU8SH85rzXIozC3 (accessed July 16, 2021).
Staff of the CALS Encyclopedia of Arkansas
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