Every now and then, a film approaches such sublime perfection that subsequent viewings only strengthen one’s warm impression of the work. Lee Isaac Chung’s touching and deeply relatable Minari is such a film, one that finds beauty in both its characters and its setting as it explores the family bonds that shape our lives and the drive to achieve prosperity. Set in 1980s Arkansas, the film follows a Korean-American family who’ve just arrived in the Ozarks from California, ready to start fresh on their efforts to attain the American Dream. Jacob (Steven Yeun) and Monica (Yeri Han) have made ends meet by working in hatcheries where they “sex” the chicks (separate the roosters from the hens, essentially), redundant and exhausting work that is no one’s idea of fulfilling. Their children, pre-teen Anne (Noel Cho) and 7-year-old David (Alan Kim), are growing up in two worlds, fluent in both Korean and English and eager to just fit in with their classmates and friends.
In Arkansas, Jacob has grand plans to start a farm that grows Korean produce for an immigrant community that desperately misses what they can’t find in the States. But he’s got to find water on the land before anything will grow, and the single-wide trailer hitched up on cinderblocks that the family now calls home is a far cry from what Monica imagined for herself and her family. As they settle into work at the new hatchery and the kids get used to their new rural, small-town lives, Monica begins to wonder if they’ll ever be able to get ahead when they have to juggle childcare, home improvements, work and farming. After a stressful night in the trailer during a classically midwestern thunderstorm (tornado watch included!), Jacob and Monica resolve a heated argument by agreeing to bring Monica’s mother, Soonja (Yuh-jung Youn), to America to live with them.
Soonja, who barely speaks English, is sharp as a tack; she swears, smokes and plays cards, and though she doesn’t make cookies or cook (as David innocently expects every grandmother to do), she cares deeply, in her own way, for Monica, Jacob and her grandchildren. On a walk one day with David, she finds a spot near a creek to plant minari, a peppery herb used in Korean cooking, one that takes time to take root in its new soil before blooming into a field of lush green. (Gentle metaphors for life, anyone?) The family of five each does their best to make the most of their new surroundings, facing various hiccups and hurdles along the way. Monica brings chicks home to practice her sorting on while a neighbor, Paul (Will Patton), helps Jacob plant the fields by hand; Anne begins attending picnics and events with their local Christian church while David continues to bristle against his grandmother’s persistent presence (“She smells like Korea!” he whines to his sister).
Minari works on many levels, key among them the strong performances at the center of the family; though the entire cast is commendable, Yeun, Kim and Youn are the standouts here. Yeun’s Jacob seems to draw from a never-ending well of determination and perseverance, believing that his hard work will see his plans, however far-fetched, come to fruition (does it get any more American than that?); when we get glimpses of his own fears and insecurities later in the film, it’s nearly heartbreaking. An actress with 50 years of work to her name, Youn arrives on American screens with a bang, her quick-witted but warm Soonja a charmer who uses the wisdom of her years to bring perspective to every situation, serious or otherwise. And young Alan Kim absolutely delights as a shy, mischievous little man who’s just doing his best to make sense of a grown-up’s world and be as good a kid as he can (even when he acts out).
Chung has three previous narrative feature films to his name, though none of them as personal as Minari (Chung did, in fact, grow up on a small farm in Arkansas). That deep familiarity with not only the subject matter but the world in which it takes place is evident from the film’s opening sequence as the family arrives at their new home, handheld shots tracking them through the overgrown fields drenched in summer sunlight. It’s a sequence that sets the tone for what’s ahead, as family bonds are tested, unexpected challenges arise and they have to decide whether the brighter future they’d hoped for is really in the cards for them at all. This is a film brimming with love, from the romantic sort that first brought Jacob and Monica together to familial love that keeps them fiercely bonded now. But there’s also the love of one’s culture, roots so deep that Monica is brought to tears when her mother brings with her hard-to-find Korean ingredients, and the sort of love that’s required to believe in potential, to put everything on the line in order to achieve a dream or be successful, even when (perhaps especially when) nothing is guaranteed.
If Minari‘s overarching story is one of searching and striving, it finds an endearing personality in the small moments throughout, those both genuinely relatable and ones unique to the immigrant experience. In one scene, David and Anne bicker in ways anyone with siblings will recognize; in another, Anne serves as translator between doctor and parents at one of David’s medical appointments. Soonja brings with her ingredients for a tonic to help David’s heart condition; she also quietly quips to Monica after church service one Sunday about how fat Americans are. All of this adds up to a film bursting with both charm and heart; Minari isn’t afraid to confront the more difficult aspects of starting a new life, it simply insists there is inherent value in doing so, and especially when it’s with those you love most in the world.
Minari is now playing in select theaters; please follow CDC, health department and venue guidelines if attending indoor screenings.
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