The Sweet Meaning Behind the Name of Award-Winning Film “Minari”

published Mar 1, 2021
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Credit: Photo by Josh Ethan Johnson, Courtesy of A24

If you’re someone who keeps up with the top films of the year, and were glued to the TV during the Golden Globes last night, then you probably weren’t surprised to learn that Minari won the Best Foreign Language Film award (although the fact that this is a category to begin with is problematic.)

And if you haven’t seen it yet, it deserves a spot on your must-watch list. The movie, from writer and director Lee Isaac Chung, is a semi-autobiographical take on his life in a family of Korean immigrants in Arkansas in the 1980s. The story follows the Yi family — two children, a mother, father, and grandmother — who move to Arkansas where the dad, played by Steven Yeun, becomes a farmer. 

But while Minari is the film name on everyone’s lips, people who haven’t seen it might not actually know what the title means. 

Here’s your cheat sheet: Minari is the Korean word for an edible plant that is native to east Asia. In English, the plant can be called water dropwort, Chinese celery, Japanese parsley, and water celery, among other names. Writing for Slate, Irene Yoo describes it as having a “delicate flavor with a grassy, peppery aftertaste” and is “long-stemmed with fronds that look similar to American parsley.” (The article also contains two recipes for minari dishes.)

Chung spoke about his film’s title in an interview with The Wrap at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival where Minari won the top prize for a U.S. dramatic film. 

“It’s a kind of weed, in a way, that we end up eating, as well,” Chung explains. “This is something that happens in Korea, we eat lots of—.” At this, Chung was interrupted by Yuh-Jung Youn, who plays the grandmother of the Yi family. “It’s not weed. This is vegetable,” she corrected him. “Okay, vegetable. I will not dishonor this plant by calling it a weed,” Chung responded.

The director went on to explain that he found a metaphor in the fact that minari grows well in its second year. “The interesting thing about it is that it’s a plant that will grow very strongly in it’s second season, after it’s died and come back,” he said. “And so, there’s this element of that in the film. It grows very expansively without doing much to it, and so it’s a poetic plant, in a way, for me.” 

As previously noted, Minari is inspired by Chung’s own family, and his own family’s minari was used for the film. An Associated Press interview with Chung explains that the director’s father grows his own minari in Kansas City, and Chung took some of the plants to use on set in Oklahoma.

“That wasn’t lost on me,” Chung told the AP about his family having another layer of connection to the film. He didn’t tell his father what the movie was about at first, so his dad didn’t know why he was taking his homegrown vegetables. 

“I think he kind of knew what I was getting at with the film but we were just not talking about it,” Chung explains. “He wanted to come to the set and see what we were doing but I kind of said no. We had some friction during production, to be honest, and it didn’t go away until I showed him the film and then it kind of alleviated all the tension we had.”

The AP article notes that Chung’s father did not get the minari back that he gave Chung for the shoot, because it washed away down a stream during a storm. That almost sounds poetic enough to inspire another movie.