My parents were immigrants in the 1980s envisioning an America that was ripe for the taking, an expanse of opportunities and limitless growth at their fingertips. Lee Issac Chung’s Minari flirts with this idea in bold and effective ways, painting an illustrious picture of a Korean family just trying to make it in 1980s Arkansas. Penned and directed by Chung, Minari is a picture that truly exemplifies what it means and ultimately what it costs to experience the so-called ‘American Dream’ and whether the feat may be worth it or not.
One of the first shots in Minari is Monica —played by the astute Han Ye-ri— driving through the greenish, endless haze that is the Arkansas woods and noticing that she’s seemingly driving away from civilization. She’s a bit perturbed by this as she peers into the rearview mirror bemused, perhaps hoping this stray road leads to some semblance of a community. In the backseat lies their half-asleep 7-year-old son David (Alan S. Kim), older daughter Anne (Noel Cho), and Burning star Steven Yuen playing Jacob; the father responsible for this sudden uprooting. It’s a wonderful yet anticlimactic moment as Monica follows the moving truck to what appears to be a plain, totally unassuming trailer home; a far cry from the idealistic home she probably hoped for.
It’s the American dream on wheels, propped up on cinder blocks and she’s not convinced. Who could blame her?
“What is this place?” She asks, confounded as if they made a wrong turn. Jacob, fully adopting the American ‘can-do’ attitude says, “It’s our new home.” He says it, chest pumped, filled to the brim with confidence as he encourages his kids to explore their new humble abode.
I wasn’t born yet when my parents were apartment hunting in New York but I’d be foolish not to think this is probably how it played out for them too. In fact, my dad probably had a similar semi-pressed polo shirt and a dingy baseball cap just like Jacob; armed with nothing but expecting the world. There are no subways, bodegas, or crosstown buses in Arkansas but Jacob has much loftier bigger plans. Surrounding their trailer home is an expansive land of grass and flowers and Jacob is determined to start a farm and live off the land. This idea of course does not mesh well with Monica who reluctantly enters the home and almost immediately resents it. Back in San Francisco, Jacob and Monica worked as chicken sexers and they’ve been hired to do the same at a local hatchery just a few miles away from their new home.
“This is not what you promised,” Monica tells Jacob at one point, visibly tired of this way of life.
Minari captures this frustration by repetition. We see them toil away at the hatchery tossing chickens onto containers and making small talk with quite possibly the only other Koreans left in town. We continuously see Jacob prepping his land for what he hopes to be a king’s ransom of greens and grains. It is a vastly underwhelmingly simple life gorgeously scored by Emile Mosseri that succinctly captures the pain and nostalgia of what it’s like to be an Immigrant in America.
David, their 7-year-old smart aleck, suffers from heart murmurs. His affliction is a looming threat that permeates throughout the entire film and serves up a fair amount of tension as you watch this family try to keep everything afloat. In these kinds of movies, you always have to have the foul-mouthed, wise granny join the fray and we get that in spades when Monica’s mother arrives soon after the move. Grandma Soonja, played by the glorious Youn Yuh-Jung, gives Minari a warm and nostalgic feel.
I felt it when she first arrived and started pulling out treats and presents from Korea much like how my grandmother would bring us delicious cookies and cheeses from the Dominican Republic. Soonja is a scene-stealing yet nuanced character that instantly subverts expectations — much to the chagrin of David — when he finds out she’s not a “regular grandma” as he puts it. Soonja doesn’t cook, she doesn’t bake cookies and she doesn’t tell bedtime stories. She swears a bunch, loves to gamble, and spends most of the day watching wrestling matches on television. She’s full of life and she’s somebody you want in your corner, allowing the film to have a healthy amount of levity amidst the struggle.
Of all the characters, the daughter Anne is the one most noticeably underused. She’s a big sister but her influence on David pales in comparison to what Soonja brings to the table. Her character, while not forgotten, is gradually nudged aside and becomes less interesting as the story moves along. David gets the new friend and shares some of the most impactful scenes in the film with Soonja while Anne is relegated to letting him know when the church bus is nearby. We don’t learn much about her hobbies or how she feels about the move which is something that kept bothering me; clearly being born first is a true curse.
Performances are top-notch and I would not be surprised if Steven Yuen snags a Best Actor nomination at this year’s Oscars, a feat that would make him the first Asian-American Best Actor Nominee in history. Will Patton also has his moments as the eccentric, religious pauper who befriends Jacob and tends to his farm whenever he can; delivering hymns to his crops and walking long distances carrying a gigantic cross.
One of the running jokes in Minari is how the kids are convinced that Mountain Dew is somehow fresh mountain water that is rejuvenating and good for you. It reminds me of when I was younger coming home from school buying Coco Rico soda utterly convinced it was real coconut and harmless for you. It just had that smell, you know? This picture is an inviting and warm experience that begs the question, what does the American dream mean to you? I’m not so sure yet myself but I’ll take a glass of that Mountain Dew, please.
Minari is slated to hit theaters on February 12, 2021 and be available on-demand on February 26.
Minari simply works because of the way Lee Issac Chung masterfully writes these characters. The script almost beckons us to cherish them and we do as if they were truly family. There are laughs to be had and a handful of surprises that feel authentic yet never forced.