A culture study on immigration and resilience neatly wrapped inside a family drama, Lee Isaac Chung’s lightly fictionalised autobiography film Minari is making waves on the award circuit – and rightly so. Starring Steven Yeun and Han Ye-ri in the leads as husband and wife Jacob and Monica Yi, and newcomers Noel Kate Cho and Alan Kim as their children Anne and David, Minari explores what it means to be in a new land with little more than your desire for a better life.
Set against the backdrop of rural Arkansas in the 1980s, the Yi family arrives at their new property – a sparse paddock housing nothing but a stilted double-wide trailer and opportunity. Having just moved from California, this vast open nothingness and ramshackle residence leaves a bad taste in Monica’s mouth. She can’t see what her husband sees in this new home; the chance to lay down roots and gain true independence. This already tells us a lot about Jacob and Monica as individuals, with Monica likely coming from an upper-class city family and Jacob from a smaller, salt-of-the-earth town, and this difference is a major point of contention between the couple.
Jacob, clearly having bought into the concept of the ‘American Dream’ is hell bent on turning their 50 acres into a thriving farm that he can use to sustain the family. Monica is less optimistic, clearly missing the comforts of a busier landscape. Little things in Minari become amplified through Chung’s lens – should they have stayed with the larger Korean community in California? Should they go back to church? Which church would they even go to? What about a doctor for their kids? All questions presumably asked prior to uprooting your family, but here they are afterthoughts in the conversation. These questions and the underlying frustrations resulting from their lack of money serve to bring more tension into their marriage, with their doubts and insecurities in each other and this venture often being articulated in anger.
Much of the film’s meatier sections are explored through the eyes of the youngest Yi, David. Afflicted with a heart condition, David is closely monitored by his mother and it’s her concern over him that results in Monica’s mother Soon-ja (played by veteran Korean actress Youn Yuh-jung) coming from Korea to live with them. Soon-ja, being nothing like what American-born David understands a grandmother to be, becomes the target of his sometimes ill-mannered pranks and often impudent remarks. Much of the film’s comedy comes from watching Soon-ja and David break through their generational and cultural barriers to develop a bond more closely resembling that of a grandparent and grandchild.
The cast performances in Minari were perfect from top to bottom. Yeun, as evidenced by his 20 award nominations (and 2 wins) for the role, was absolutely in top form as a man burdened by both his dreams and his responsibilities, and Han gives a great effort as a beleaguered wife trying to navigate new hardships. But truly the scene stealers of this film are Youn and Kim who just approach every scene and line with the kind of laissez-faire attitude that comes with being either too old or too young to care too deeply.
It cannot be stated enough how beautiful and empathetic a film Minari is. Every setback the Yi family experiences is so tangible and we as an audience can feel the rawness in the moments that threaten to tear them apart. Chung also doesn’t shy away from the realities of racism in the west, the way it often displays itself as ignorance and curiosity rather than overt distaste. Both Anne and David experience racist comments from children in the community who genuinely don’t seem to know better, while Monica is pandered to by the church mothers who think her petite figure and facial features are “cute” (read as: exotic and interesting). Chung makes no efforts to paint these side characters out to be bad or somehow an adversary to his leads, they are simply what they are, which makes them oddly sympathetic. Even the Yi’s hyper-evangelical farm hand Paul (played by Will Patton), who fought in the Korean War and who one might expect to harbour animosity to Jacob and his family because of their race, is merely presented as eccentric and passionate about his faith.
In the midst of one of America’s most internally divisive moments in modern history, Minari is a beautiful and poignant video essay that, perhaps unintentionally, reminds audiences of why the USA was once considered to be the greatest, most coveted country in the world.