Minari is a plant originally from East Asia known for its ability to grow almost anywhere it’s planted. The metaphor of minari in regards to the Yi family at the focus of writer and director Lee Isaac Chung’s drama of the same name sounds heavy-handed, but in practice it, like most of Chung’s film, is perfect.
Chung based “Minari” on his own upbringing. Set in the 1980s, the film opens with the Yi family—father Jacob (Steven Yeun), mother Monica (Ye-ri Han), daughter Anne (Noel Kate Cho), and son David (Alan Kim)—Korean immigrants arriving at their new home in rural Arkansas after moving from California. The opening scenes tell us almost everything we need to know about the dynamics of this family. Jacob appears enthusiastic; as he surveys his new land, there is a gleam of hope in his eyes at all he can accomplish here. Back in California, he worked in a hatchery sexing chicks, and while he and Monica take up the same sort of work here, Jacob aspires to have a farm of his own, where he can grow Korean produce to sell to vendors. Monica, however, is immediately wary of their new surroundings. Their new home, set up on wheels, isn’t what she expected. She meets a few other Korean women at the hatchery, but she misses the sense of community that, say, a Korean church can provide. She’s also concerned about their lack of proximity to a hospital, as David has a heart condition. Ultimately, Monica and Jacob invite Monica’s mother Soon-ja (Yuh-jung Youn) to come from Korea to live with them and help out with the kids.
It’s in the arrival of Soon-ja that we really see the different attitudes between Korean-born Jacob and Monica and their American-born children. Monica tearfully welcomes her mother and the gifts she brings from Korea, ingredients and things that are hard to find in America. But David repeatedly says that she isn’t a “real grandma.” The implication is that David, who has grown up surrounded mostly by the American image of a grandmother—likely a sweet old woman who bakes cookies—can’t reconcile that idea with the woman he is now faced with. Soon-ja plays cards and watches sports and has an occasionally crude sense of humor and, as David comments, “smells like Korea.” It’s fascinating to watch these dynamics play out, especially as Jacob appears to want to assimilate, while Monica is trying to keep their Korean culture and heritage alive in their household and in their children. And as outwardly nice as most of the white locals the Yi’s encounter appear to be, Chung’s script subtly conveys the ways that the Yi’s are still viewed as outsiders. In a scene set during a church reception, ladies coo over “how cute” Monica is as she doesn’t know a lot of English, while a little girl Anne’s age rattles off a series of words that stereotypically “sound Asian” and asks Anne to stop her when she says something in Korean.
With “Minari,” Chung has succeeded at crafting a story that is tender without ever feeling manipulative. All of the performances, included those of the child actors, are nuanced and genuine. Kim’s David is adorable, but a little bratty; Cho’s Anne is only a little older than he is, but she’s already more responsible. Both are aware of the tensions between their parents as a result of the move. Yeun and Han bring a complexity to their characters that goes beyond their difference of opinion on their new life. They both care deeply for each other and for their family, but ultimately, Jacob places his desire to succeed over aspects of his family’s wellbeing. Jacob’s drive could have easily made him unlikeable, but Yeun imbues him with a relatability that makes his near-obsession over making his farm sustainable understandable. He is beaten back with setbacks throughout the film, and yet he keeps going. There are many moments of sadness, anger, fear, and longing throughout “Minari,” but Chung tells his story with a lot of humor too. David and Soon-ja are both quite funny, particularly in their interactions with each other, and Paul (played by Will Patton), an extremely religious local man who Jacob enlists to help on him on his farm, brings additional lightness to his scenes.
Lachlan Milne’s cinematography beautifully captures the lush green plains of the Ozarks, and Emile Mosseri’s delicate score is not overused, but it enhances the action every time it is. “Minari” is a movie that unfolded before my eyes with little fanfare, but there was never a moment I wasn’t riveted by the intimate family group this film invited me into. When it ended, the bulk of my thoughts were “that’s nice,” but I find myself replaying moments from the film in my mind days later. I can’t imagine how it feels for Asian audiences to see this sort of story on screen, and to see a kind of immigrant story that hasn’t really been told yet (we don’t hear much about Asians moving from the coast to America’s heartland); and even though I am not Asian, so much of it is universal that I still found moments and relationships that I related to on a deep level. By the end of the film, the minari seeds that Soon-ja brought with her and planted have grown; like the Yi’s, it has managed to thrive in a strange new place. The pursuit of the American dream hangs over the film, but it’s how that pursuit affects this family that is the driving force behind the story. I can’t think of a more American movie than “Minari.”
“Minari” is now playing in select theaters and in virtual cinemas through A24. It will be available on demand on all digital platforms on February 26. Runtime: 115 minutes. Rated PG-13.