Lee Isaac Chung’s semi-autobiographical drama is a beautiful, tender, and honest portrait of a Korean American family in Arkansas
In Minari, Lee Isaac Chung’s soulful and semi-autobiographical immigrant tale, the earth is a potent metaphor for adapting to a new home. It’s why Jacob (Steven Yeun) chooses to move his family to the plot of land in Arkansas. The soil, he says, is the best out there – a perfect place to plant your roots, as well as the Korean vegetables he intends to sell.
Just as the soil isn’t as fertile as Jacob expected, the Yi family struggle with settling in the Ozarks. His wife Monica (Yeri Han) isn’t convinced by his risky plan for success and the financial toll it’s taking, while children David (Alan Kim) and Anne (Noel Kate Cho) try to adapt to their new home: a not-so-attractive mobile abode that rests on cinder blocks.
As many have acknowledged, Minari confronts the empty promises of the American Dream, but it also finds ways to delve deeper into what exactly that dream entails. The family’s patriarch, Jacob, is simultaneously enchanted by American individualism, ambivalent about assimilation, and suffocated by the pressure to provide – a pressure he puts on himself. As he takes the first steps towards creating his farm, he rejects using a dowsing rod to find water, concluding that his way – the Korean way – is better. He sees the vast fields as open opportunities for anyone, unaware that the systems in place will never work in his favour. Individualism only works for the select few.
While Jacob is the head of the family, it’s through his son David’s eyes that we actually see the story play out, as he reconciles with his Asian American identity. Standing in the way is his grandmother, Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung), who’s flown in from Korea as a consolation for Monica. Soon-ja lightens up every scene as a potty-mouthed, card-playing granny, but Youn’s layered performance adds depth to what could have easily been comic relief. In the beginning David shuns her for not fitting in with the expectations of an American grandmother, a moving observation into how so many immigrants perceive assimilation as rejecting part of yourself.
A child’s perspective suggests innocence and naivety, of moments and characters underdeveloped because you’re less likely to comprehend everything around you at a young age. But as a deeply personal film, Minari arrives with decades of hindsight. Chung is fully aware of what motivates David to drive his family to a breaking point and why Monica can’t bear it. The film isn’t just a memory piece, but an act of understanding and forgiveness.
It’s difficult to choose a single stand out moment. Yeun delivers his best performance since, well, his last film, Burning, a testament to the fact that he’s moving from strength to strength and choosing projects that highlight his immense range. But it’s Han and Youn who are the true twin hearts of Minari. Han communicates multitudes with her wide eyes, pleas filled with desperation and urgency that go unheard. When Youn isn’t making you laugh with her killer one-liners, she's devastating you with her gaze alone.
Minari is by no means a film about racism. Rather, racism is depicted as a pernicious, everyday reality that you have to swallow and move on from, or face isolation. During a family outing to church, David is asked by a white kid why his face is “flat.” It's the sort of question that stems from genuine curiosity, but one that still makes you aware of just how different you are. Chung doesn’t linger on the moment or villainize anyone – this is simply something that exists. Another dark shade to a vibrant and full life. Later, David sleeps over at his new friend’s house without any hard feelings. Assimilation is so often placed on the immigrant as their duty alone, when in reality there are other forces at work that make such a feat impossible. As an Asian woman who grew up in a predominantly white town, it’s one of the most honest reflections of my own childhood that I’ve ever seen.
Beautiful and gentle moments build to create a tender family portrait: the smell of food from home that reduces Monica to tears; David’s sincere belief that Mountain Dew is actual water from the mountains. A film where Asian American identity, and more specifically Korean American identity, isn't the driving aspect of the story shouldn’t feel so revolutionary – but then again, Minari is a quiet force of nature.Where to watch