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MINARI – Emile Mosseri

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

One of the most critically acclaimed films of late 2020 and early 2021 is Minari, written and directed by Lee Isaac Chung. The film is set in the 1980s and tells the story of a family of South Korean immigrants who move to rural Arkansas and try to create their own ‘American dream’. It’s a fairly simple story about the ups and downs of life; how immigrant families try (and sometimes fail) to integrate themselves into American culture, the stresses of how trying to start and grow a business affects personal lives, health problems within multi-generational homes, and much more besides. The ‘minari’ of the title relates to the eponymous leafy vegetable plant ubiquitous in Korean cuisine, and which in this instance acts as a metaphor for something foreign planting roots and growing in a new environment. It’s leading cast – Steven Yeun, Ye-Ri Han, 8-year old Alan Kim, 73-year-old Korean acting legend Yuh-Jung Youn – have all been the subject of great praise and lots of awards buzz, as has its score, by relative newcomer Emile Mosseri.

New York-born Mosseri first emerged into musical circles as a member of the indie rock band The Dig in 2010, and they received a great deal of non-mainstream acclaim for their debut album Electric Toys, their sophomore effort Midnight Flowers, and their 2013 EPs called Tired Hearts and You & I. Mosseri’s first solo effort at film scoring came in 2019 when he wrote the music for the racially poignant drama The Last Black Man in San Francisco, and he followed that up by scoring the second season of the Amazon drama series Homecoming in early 2020, and the quirky comedy-drama Kajillionaire later that same year. Minari is likely to be the score which launches Mosseri’s career towards the Hollywood A-List; his three works to date have made him a darling of the indie set, which seems to continually fall over itself to praise scores like this.

Upon my first listen to Minari, I rather sarcastically and flippantly quipped that it “feels like what an Indiewire article would sound like if it was turned into music,” and I still sort of stand by that assessment, but not in the way you might think. Much like the scores the writers of that magazine tend to love, Minari is comprised predominantly of dream-like and ethereal textures which don’t so much offer a strong recurring identity as they sort of drape a sheet over the film, broadly accentuating the outlines but obfuscating any details that lie within. This sort of music is fragile the point of near abstractness, so subtle and insubstantial that you fear it may drift away.

It’s also a score which, oddly, seems to have no real emotional anchor. It’s sort of pretty, but often offers weirdly disturbing dissonant textures that undermine the mood. It’s happy, but sad; uplifting, but depressing, all at the same time, so that you’re never entirely sure what the filmmaker is intending to convey at any given point. This is what I mean by my ‘Indiewire’ comment – the prevailing wisdom there is that any score which leads the listener down a particular emotional path, or god forbid actually manipulates them into feeling something specific, is to be frowned upon. So, of course, Minari doesn’t do any of that.

However, what Minari lacks in emotional specificity, it makes up for in entertainment and enjoyment. Once you reconcile yourself to the fact that it’s thematically light, structurally underdeveloped, and a little monotone, it’s actually a quite pleasant and agreeable experience, a gentle 30 minute tone poem bolstered by a couple of original songs. Mosseri’s instrumental palette comprises a 40-piece string orchestra recorded with the FAMES Project in Macedonia, backed by prepared piano, saxophones, woodwinds, guitars, voices, and electronics, including a 1980s Korg synthesizer. Mosseri remains consistent in this stylistic approach throughout the score, although even within this hypnotic and mesmerizing series of repetitive cues, one or two stand out.

Both “Intro” and “Outro” use the theremin-like tones of the Korg in peculiar ways, layering them against the piano and the sax to create a wobbling, cascading, waterfall-like effect. Occasionally the tone of the strings reminds me of something you might hear in a 1950s lounge or easy listening pop arrangement, a sort of high-pitched wash that is very distinctive, and is especially notable in cues like “Jacob and the Stone”. “Big Country” is the most prominent performance of the score’s most noticeable main theme, a dreamy duet for piano and wordless vocals which has the tiniest hint of the French-language song “La Vie en Rose” in its melodic line.

“Garden of Eden” features acoustic guitars in a prominent role. “Grandma Picked a Good Spot” showcases a lovely classical piano line which is made to sound somewhat old-fashioned and sonically damaged through the pre-preparation. “Jacob’s Prayer” uses the wordless vocals well. “Birdslingers” is a little more dramatically intense, blending the vocals with a more percussive guitar lick and prominent drums. “Oklahoma City” layers the high, quivering vocals against gently unsettling woodwinds to create a nervous atmosphere. “You’ll Be Happy” focuses on a solo cello line.

The 4-minute “Minari Suite” offers statements of most of the score’s textural tones and brief motivic ideas, including a lovely version of the main theme for piano and wordless vocal. Oddly, some of the piano textures at the beginning of this cue remind me a little of Gershwin and Rhapsody in Blue, which is probably completely coincidental, but nevertheless offers a peculiar but brief disconnect.

The two songs, “Rain Song” and “Wind Song,” were written in English by Mosseri and then translated into Korean by Stefanie Hong, before being performed by lead actress Ye-Ri Han. “Rain Song,” which is based on the main theme heard in “Big Country,” is for me the most appealing of the two, a melancholic but effectively beguiling piece of fanciful whimsy. “Wind Song” has a colorful array of swirling musical patterns that make it more texturally interesting than the other, but it lacks a little bit of focus and seems a little meandery.

One observation I made is that, with the exception of the vocals in the two songs, there is nothing especially Korean about this score, and nothing especially American either. Considering how much emphasis the film places on cultural identities, and how that clash is felt especially by the grandmother and grandson, a musical depiction of that might have been appropriate. I’m not saying we needed banjos and slide guitars competing with traditional Korean classical instruments in the score, but the fact that Mosseri offers absolutely no acknowledgement of the ethnic heritage aspect of the film is curious, and is perhaps a missed opportunity to do something interesting with these diverse musical styles.

The fact that Minari has been the subject of so much critical acclaim in 2021 is indicative of where the taste of mainstream film and music critics, as well as younger filmmakers, currently lies. And, you know what? It’s fine. It’s a pleasant enough experience, and once I got myself into the right headspace I enjoyed listening to the album. But I still feel that, for the most part, scores like Minari are less effective in-context in relation to scores made of stronger emotional stuff. Minari is a surface level score; it sits on top of the narrative creating an overarching mood, a pervasive tone, but never actually gets into the meat of the storytelling craft that is at the heart of good cinema. Mosseri hints at things here and there, but never explores anything in any depth, because – as the editors of Indiewire constantly say – any musical manipulation of an audience is a cardinal sin. So, while I enjoyed Minari as a satisfactory diversion, it never made me actually feel anything in particular, and to me that is the biggest cardinal sin of all.

Buy the Minari soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Intro (1:38)
  • Jacob and the Stone (1:38)
  • Big Country (2:16)
  • Garden of Eden (1:36)
  • Rain Song (written by Emile Mosseri and Stefanie Hong, performed by Ye-Ri Han) (2:12)
  • Grandma Picked a Good Spot (3:30)
  • Halmeoni (1:23)
  • Jacob’s Prayer (1:34)
  • Wind Song (written by Emile Mosseri and Stefanie Hong, performed by Ye-Ri Han) (2:42)
  • Birdslingers (1:52)
  • Oklahoma City (1:08)
  • Minari Suite (3:48)
  • You’ll Be Happy (0:52)
  • Paul’s Antiphony (1:54)
  • Find It Every Time (2:03)
  • Outro (2:53)

Running Time: 33 minutes 08 seconds

Milan Records (2021)

Music composed by Emile Mosseri. Conducted by Oleg Kondratenko. Orchestrations by Catherine Joy and Joseph Carrillo. Recorded and mixed by Frank Wolf. Edited by Nick Lok and Kent Sparling. Album produced by Emile Mosseri.

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