In the movie <Minari> Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung) says to her grandson when he sees minari for the first time, “Minari grows well anywhere like weeds. So anyone can pick and eat it. Rich or poor, anyone can enjoy it and be healthy. Minari can be put in Kimchi, put in stew, put in soup. It can be medicine if you are sick.” But have we ever been concerned about such ‘wonderful’ and ‘wonder pul’ (meaning plant in Korean) minari until Director Jung Isaac made the movie named after this plant?
Actress Youn Yuh-jung debuted as one of the TV talents openly recruited in 1966 and it has been more than fifty years since she took her first step into the film world, cast in the movie <Woman of Fire>(Kim Ki-young, 1971). But she may have also been like this minari. She was rarely paid much attention because with any genre, actor, or director her performance was so real and natural that everyone took it for granted. And it was also true that as she grew older she had been overlooked behind the young main actresses. Recently it was not in a drama or movie but in a TV show that her name was known to the public. But she has played her roles for tens of years in outstanding dramas, box office hits, and others grand and small. The Korean-American director Jung Isaac called her to America to add to the best filmography of her life. He must have noticed that Youn Yuh-jung would perfectly fit the character ‘Soon-ja’ who is the most Korean but unexpected at the same time. Soon-ja in this movie is clean, green, and lovely like minari growing green near the water.
<Minari> is director Jung Isaac’s autobiographical work about a Korean husband and wife who promise to go to America and save each other moving to a wide field in Arkansas with their children. But they are not the same in heart. While Jacob (Steven Yeun) wants to cultivate the field and show their kids how he accomplishes things, Monica (Han Ye-ri) does not like the container house in such an isolated place far from the hospital in much fear of an emergency for her son David (Allen Kim)’s heart disease. As Jacob takes out a loan and starts farming, Jacob and Monica frequently quarrel and the house grows in tension. When Soon-ja comes from Korea to take care of the children she is like a relief pitcher put into the family to get through the crisis. They go through some troubles but Soon-ja’ role as an adhesive for the family does not change.
But Soon-ja is different from ordinary grandmothers from the beginning. Above all, she and David, who was born in America, have a huge cultural gap. David thinks it is dirty when Soon-ja bites chestnuts to crush and give to him and hates sharing his room with his stinking grandmother and drinking the bitter liquid medicine she brought from Korea. He thinks it strange to see that she does not know how to cook pasta but enjoys Mountain Dew, the Korean card game Hwatu and pro wrestling. When he brings a bottle of pee instead of drink it shows his hostility going to the extreme. But as time goes by David feels Soon-ja loves him deeply though in a different way from his parents and becomes closer with his grandmother. Unlike his parents who always say negatively “Don’t run!” or “No!” Soon-ja’s words are affirmative, like ‘Strong Boy!” or “Wonderful!” or “You won!” And the words grow green with energy in David’s heart and at last let him run.
<Minari> which starts and ends in David’s point of view focuses on the various afflictions
the first generation of Korean immigrants have faced instead of showing their series of successes. The minari Soon-ja brought symbolizes Jacob and his family’s strong life power and adaptability with which they survive the tough storms and the hot sunlight. The theme is clear: what sustains them is neither money nor success but walking with family. So <Minari> is more than a story of immigrants as it is a movie for the family and means so much as a work showing the general values of life. There are many points where any member from a family of three different generations may feel the same even without any special experience of immigration. Ironically, Soon-ja is the person who lets the family come together to sleep in the living room by mistake and becomes the key character bringing a happy ending. Youn Yuh-jung well portrayed her character who has to show various feelings and looks through a supporting role during her not so long screen time in her style. To her it must not be too difficult to play but the character really fits her.
Director Jung Isaac said <Minari> is a love letter to all the parents in the world who put their hope in their children’s future. In the movie, the husband and wife call each other ‘Ji-young’s Mom’ and ‘Ji-young’s Dad.’ Each time I heard the familiar-to-us names being called at the isolated house in Arkansas I felt a lump in my throat. It is because there we find the honest confession of the director who in his middle age became older than Jacob. Isn't the Oscar in Youn Yuh-jung’s arms the greatest gift he could present to an actress of his mother’s generation?
Youn Sung-eun(Film critic) / Translated by Park Eun-sun