A Korean family moves to Arkansas to start a farm in the 1980s.
Is there anything that better embodies the American spirit than immigration? One can argue that America’s defining characteristic is its youth as a democratic nation, while others might say it’s the country’s persistence in the face of tyranny and oppression. But take even a cursory look at the 244-year history of the United States and the answer comes sharply into focus: its rooted in migration, with immigrants from around the world planting their feet on American soil, helping foster a type of national diversity that’s nearly impossible to find anywhere else.
Few films from the past few years, however, seem to successfully comprehend, nevertheless depict, just how quintessentially invaluable immigration is to both American history and society—that is, with the exception of writer-director Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari. This is a film that’s nothing short of utterly sprawling in its emotional intimacy, and it’s easily one of the most robust, direct portrayals of American immigration in recent memory.
Describing Minari as all-encompassing in its depiction of immigration’s trials and tribulations is accurate in its own right, but it’s also worth addressing the flawless specificity in which it movingly portrays the intersections of Korean-American culture. There’s something in this film for every conceivable audience member and demographic, which speaks volumes about the universal power such a discretely cultural film possesses.
Based in part on Chung’s own experiences with immigrating to the United States as a child, Minari introduces the viewer to the Yi family in the 1980s, a tightly knit household of four: Jacob (Steven Yeun), Monica (Han Ye-ri), and their two children, David (the endlessly delightful Alan Kim) and Anne (Noel Kate Cho). Jacob and Monica are no strangers to the land—they’ve been in the US since the 1970s, working menial jobs for 10 years in California in an attempt to eke out a living. Their latest move, as depicted in the film’s opening scene, is to a trailer house in the Ozarks surrounded by a vast expanse of farmland, which Jacob and Monica react to in nearly opposite ways.
On the one hand, Jacob’s nothing short of elated, boastfully proclaiming that the stretch of open land in their new home is the perfect space for a proverbial Garden of Eden—seemingly oblivious to both the untimely fate of the land’s previous owner, and perhaps having forgotten the catastrophic conclusion of the Biblical tale he references. Monica, however, seems to range from hesitant to irritated by the notion of moving into such a musty, rural location—upon hearing that among Jacob’s reasons for moving was the quality and colour of the land’s dirt, all she can resignedly tell him is that none of this was what he promised.
In some sense, Monica’s concerns extend beyond the implausibility of raising their children in this climate. For instance, their energetic younger child, David, seemingly suffers from a heart condition which has his parents constantly asking him to “stop running” (lest they risk going to the nearest hospital, which is a full hour away), but for a young boy so precocious and curious about his surroundings, their scolding commands can’t help but fall on deaf ears.
As time goes by, the Yi’s begin working in the community and expanding their own horizons—for instance, Jacob meets a peculiarly devout Christian and Korean War veteran named Paul (Will Patton), and collaborates with him on the Yi’s enormous produce garden. However, it’s with the arrival of Monica’s lively, candid, foulmouthed mother, Soonja (Youn Yuh-jung), that we start to get an insight into how David, specifically, matures and comes of age. Soonja makes many attempts to form a close grandmother-grandson bond with David, even if he seems averse to interacting with her at first. His major complaints about Soonja are innocently humorous, yet heavily indicative of the ways in which he resists assimilating into Korean culture; among his gripes are the fact that Soonja seemingly “smells like Korea,” as well as his naïve disgust at the traditional ginseng she’s brought to the Yi’s.
Over time, however, the two connect despite their opposite personalities, culminating in a delightfully symbolic scene where Soonja plants and introduces a Korean vegetable called minari (미나리) to David—a plant that has the resilience to grow and flourish no matter where it’s sowed. Setting aside the plant’s well-discussed and relatively obvious metaphor for immigration, the resilience that the minari also exhibits is one of the film’s main throughlines. As much as the journey to a new country is itself an admirable act, a new struggle emerges in finding a way to survive there, and the Yi’s (especially Monica and Jacob) are in constant conflict about this. Every victory Jacob achieves in his agricultural pursuit is perpetually tinged with uncertainty, and every setback he faces is nothing less than a crushing blow to the family’s stability, something Monica finds herself less and less able to deal with as time goes on.
But there are moments of beauty and serendipity in Minari, further enhanced by Chung’s impeccably reconstructed memories of Korean-American immigrant experiences. Speaking from personal experience as a Korean-American myself, so much of what this film gets right is in the details—the divinely good fortune of finding someone else in town who speaks Korean, discovering a local business that’s run by and for Koreans, the mention of church being the only real place for Korean-American social interaction, or the feelings that arise when you see food from Korea that you haven’t eaten in years. Yet, despite this specificity to Korean-American culture, so many of these same experiences are, in some sense, ubiquitous across various immigrant nationalities, which creates a unique and emotionally moving sense of universality that’s difficult to find in any other movie of Minari’s ilk.
Fully embodying Minari‘s characters and their unique personalities are the brilliant cast of actors, which ranges from veteran Korean and American-Korean performers such as Youn Yuh-jung, Han Ye-ri, and Steven Yeun, to amateur child actors such as Alan Kim and Noel Kate Cho. Kim, in particular, is one of the most surprising yet truly notable standouts, delivering a sense of innocence, curiosity, and rebelliousness to David’s character that feels unfeigned and authentic. It’s impressive to watch and likely wouldn’t have occurred had Chung not placed an extravagant amount of faith in Kim’s ability to portray, in essence, a surrogate for Chung’s childhood self. There’s an evolution that David undergoes from only seeing himself as an American child, to embracing the Korean part of his identity once the purely Korean Soonja arrives, which fills the proverbial and literal hole in his heart—and Kim conveys that evolution with immense grace for his age.
Hot on the heels of establishing his burgeoning filmography with roles in Bong Joon-ho’s Okja (2017) and Lee Chang-dong’s Burning (2018), Steven Yeun also brings the performance of a lifetime with Minari, delivering Jacob’s earnest, determined stubbornness in such a way it’s difficult to envision anyone else in the role. At times, it’s hard not to get frustrated with many of Jacob’s incredibly risky, often careless decisions, but Yeun ensures audiences know why Jacob does exactly what he does. There’s a tenderness to his eyes in so many of his scenes, and it only takes one look at his gaze to realise the genuine place his ambitions are from. Jacob is, by all accounts, a man immersed in the American Dream, but, over the course of the film, he’s forced to reconcile with the fact that there are some things more valuable than the respect he wishes to attain.
Youn Yuh-jung, meanwhile, is a famous veteran actress from South Korea with a decades-long filmography, but it’s fitting she’s expanded her horizons to international audiences by playing Soonja, an uncharacteristically unique grandmother figure. Soonja’s surprisingly frank personality never comes across as crass or overtly vulgar, and that’s mostly thanks to Youn’s approachable, joyous disposition. She manages to achieve a striking balance between these two contrasting qualities, allowing us to ease into and accept her character whenever she reveals her softer side to David… even after something jarring occurs in the second half that shows yet another aspect to Youn’s performance.
While the usual story about the American Dream that Minari recontextualizes is absurdly easy to pervert into maudlin, sappy kitsch (especially given several of the plot beats the film navigates), Chung’s measured direction and his relatively objective sense of recollection for the memories he recreates allows the emotions of his story to arrive in a profoundly authentic way. It isn’t out to beg for your sympathy—like, for example, its ‘Best Picture’ Academy Award rival Nomadland (2020), it presents its subject material with a deliberate touch, letting the details and the characters do the talking rather than the director’s own platitudes.
Films like Minari are lightning in a bottle. For a movie that seems to operate in such a straightforward, direct structure, it’s surprising how many layers can be found in both its characters and the particularity of its cultural depictions. Even as the film culminates in a Tarkovskian finale that reaffirms its staggeringly moving themes, Minari isn’t a movie of conclusions and never places the Yi’s future in a comfortable degree of stability. What it is, however, is a naturalistic and earnest experience that comes from the bottom of Chung’s heart, representing so much of what makes global immigration admirable and beautiful, through conveying the story of one family in one country. It’s nothing short of grandiose in its modesty, emotional in its objectivity, and universal in its specificity.
USA | 2020 | 115 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | KOREAN • ENGLISH
writer & director: Lee Isaac Chung.
starring: Steven Yeun, Han Ye-ri, Alan Kim, Noel Kate Cho, Youn Yuh-jung & Will Patton.