Jacob and Monica are following the American Dream. Following an unhappy decade as chicken sexers in California, they’ve bought their house on wheels in Arkansas. The idea is to build a farm and earn a little self-sufficiency. They have 2 kids – and although the family is Korean, the kids have also taken on Americanised forenames. Anne is the elder, but we see most of the film through the point of view of 7-year old David.
When I say that Jacob and Monica are following the American Dream, it seems to be Jacob who is the more committed. Monica is a bit more worried about David’s heart condition. When her mother appears, and originally makes her unconventional contribution towards looking after the kids, this initially eases the burden, but only until granny has a stroke.
Times are hard. After they use too much water to keep their plants alive, the water at home is turned off. The kids are encouraged to stay with friends to have a liveable environment. Jacob continually needs to borrow money to pay for various disasters which accumulate after customers withdraw orders, Monica is ready to give it all up, but Jacob is in too deep to give up now.
There are parts of Minari that I understand that I’m supposed to enjoy. Grandma Soonja is obviously a fun character who doesn’t dress or act the way that grannies are supposed to. At first, the kids are suspicious of her, but eventually they are persuaded by her unconventional charm and develop close bonds with her. Intellectually, this is fun, but I just couldn’t feel it.
I presumed that “Minari” was based on a novel, which apparently it wasn’t. This is a surprize as the pace felt just wrong. A novel allows you to take in slow, languid changes as a couple slowly drift apart, losing the shared priorities that brought them together. In a film, such slow development in character and plot can become a little bit boring – as proved to be the case here. Put a different way, there was a little too much introspective navel gazing, a little too few car chases.
Cinematically, of course the film has lots to offer. Towards the end, there is a great fire scene, which is always a good thing. It looks great, but doesn’t really feel like it means much. In the end it was a film that I found impressive, but I never found myself liking it or feeling and real empathy with any of its characters.
Serious issues are dealt with here. The lack of dignity offered by chicken sexing, and the desire to do something of which your kids can be proud. The way in which religion can provide some sort of respite to people in impossible situations. The racism experienced by Koreans in the post-war USA (although this is only dealt with with the lightest of touches).
And yet, despite the Oscar nominations and a recommendation by Wulf from Moviemento (who can normally be relied upon to find something special), Minari just didn’t really do it for me. Feel free to judge me for it, but sweet loving relationships between misunderstood grandmothers and cute young kids and the frustration of long married relationships slowly running out of energy are nothing that’s never really interested me.
I wanted to care for the people and what they’re experiencing, but just couldn’t. And without this care, it was just someone else’s story, running on the screen in front of me. Yeah, some of the things that happened to them were shitty. Yeah, they got the (very) occasional lucky break. But it was nothing I felt I could invest in. I’m quite prepared to accept that its not them, its me, but ultimately that didn’t help things hugely.