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Mar 29, 2021

Golden Globe-Winning 'Minari' Throws a Twist on a Classic Immigrant Story

A big fan of movies and TV adapted from other media, our producer-at-large Father Vince Kuna, C.S.C., a USC film-school grad, also likes to check out original stories. He got a chance early on to see the film Minari, written and directed by Lee Isaac Chung, which is getting a lot of attention after winning the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture -- Foreign Language.

So, we checked in with him to see what he thought (click here to see how to watch) ...

Where did you watch Minari?

The world premiere at Sundance in 2020, before shutdown. The entire audience loved it and rewarded it with a standing ovation. I was a little underwhelmed by it, and I morphed into what annoys me about my symphony-going friend, which is being the guy who doesn’t applaud if every note isn’t hit exactly right.

Which notes were hit or missed?

It opened American audiences to a culture they may not be familiar with. Being half-Asian, I appreciated that the crowd in Park City, Utah, stepped out of their comfort zone a bit and tried a movie they might otherwise overlook.

That said, imagine growing up in a similar family and seeing the characterization is so accurate that nothing is new to you: the grandmother who doesn’t speak a lick of English;  the mother who strictly attends to the faith life of her children; the annoying sister.

As precise as the characters were, I sat in the film waiting for something to happen. Or from my perspective, waiting for something “new” to happen.

Is Minari an original story?

It’s original in terms of the usage of language. When a film delivers dialogue in non-English, I impulsively think, foreign film. That Minari is an American -produced film, yet exhibits Korean culture and language, I think you could say it’s original in that sense.

What parts of the film are familiar?

The American immigrant story has been told before. What’s very difficult in the genre is that assimilation is a floaty story arc. In the Irish-American immigration film Brooklyn, there wasn’t even a character that embodied an antagonist, which was an intention of the author of the book/source material.

The key lies in the nuance. Have you heard of an Asian-American immigration story? Sure. Korean-American? Uh, maybe. Korean-American family adjusting to life in the 1980s in Arkansas? Er, no. OK, let’s check this one out.

How does it compare to the other original films nominated for Academy Awards, coming April 25?

I really enjoyed Promising Young Woman. I can’t say too much, because it’s such a well-structured, keeps-you guessing-film that anything I would say about it might tip the plot and ruin the experience for the would-be viewer. Perhaps pay attention to whether or not each main character is able to give and receive forgiveness.

I also thought Sound of Metal used dialogue, silence, atmosphere and post-sound effects to tell a story primary through auditory elements. Sound of Metal, similar to Minari, also dealt directly with Christianity.

Oscar-nominated Paul Raci plays a Protestant minister running a camp for the hearing disabled. While not accumulating much screen time, the character still provides the spiritual spine for the movie, exhorting newly deaf musician Ruben (Riz Ahmed) to seek the “stillness” amidst the busyness in his life.

Ruben ignores the advice at the time, but eventually comes to recognize the wisdom in the line by film’s end.

Is there a faith element in Minari, and if so, what is it?

Yes, an overt plot point has the family members going to a Christian church and trying to fit in the best they can.

I thought of 84-year-old prophetess Anna from the Gospel passage read on Feast Day of the Presentation (Luke 2:22-40) as the subtext, that an old faithful woman would have much to impart in terms of a life of faith: married, then widowed over a long lifespan.

The film acknowledges the challenges of intergenerational living as the boy, initially needled by his grandmother, comes to later appreciate her presence and even her wisdom.

Editor's note: In the press notes, director Chung said:

Chung looked particularly to [Catholic author] Flannery O’Connor’s fierce and comic candidness about rural Southerners facing faith, intolerance, salvation, and their own flaws. “What I love about O’Connor is that often the characters that make you feel the most uncomfortable are the ones that offer grace and redemption. There’s something so counterintuitive and life-affirming about that.”

Father Vince said he didn't really see the O'Connor influence, but you Flannery fans can debate that down in the comments.

Image: (L-R) Steven Yeun, Alan S. Kim, Yuh-Jung Youn, Yeri Han, Noel Cho in 'Minari'/Credit: Josh Ethan Johnson

Click here to visit Father Vince Kuna’s IMDB page.

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