A Korean family tries to grow their own American Dream
Available on Amazon Prime or other VOD services starting February 26
By Diana Beechener
A double-wide trailer sits on blocks in the middle of a rural Arkansas field. To Jacob Yi (Steven Yeun: Find Space), it’s the beginning of his family’s grand future. He’s spent a decade scrimping and saving as a chicken sexer in a processing plant on the West Coast. Finally, Jacob has enough money to buy a parcel of land in Arkansas. He moves the family across the U.S. with grand dreams of starting a farm that will grow Korean vegetables.
To Jacob’s wife Monica (Yeri Han: Secret Zoo), the trailer is the symbol of her husband’s folly and her crumbling marriage. They left Korea with wild hopes of fortune and opportunity in America. They found the only work they could get was in chicken processing, where they labored for a decade to raise a family. Now, they’ve left their Korean community to live in Arkansas, hours away from cities and hospitals. She worries about the people around her and her son David (Alan S. Kim in his screen debut) being able to reach a hospital should his heart condition flare up.
Monica decides to invite her mother Soonja (Yuh-jung Youn: Beasts Clawing at Straws) to stay with them, as a clutch at the normalcy she misses. But Soonja simply adds more strain. Her grandchildren don’t appreciate her Korean customs and gifts, she causes friction between Monica and Jacob, and she doubt’s the farm’s crops, planting her own beloved minari, a Korean watercress, at a river bank.
As the family begins to acclimate to life in Arkansas, they face setback after setback. The water supply is going bad. Bills are piling up. Monica fears she’ll never fit in. The Yis may have planted their roots in Arkansas, but can they flourish there?
Writer/director Lee Isaac Chung (I Have Seen My Last Born) finds the beauty and the pain of small family stories in this deeply personal film. Minari is an immigrant story, filled with dashed dreams and slim hopes. It’s a film deeply grounded in the mythology of the American dream and the perpetual hope that comes with facing an uphill battle. Minari is a film that blends the stoic populism of a John Ford film with the rhapsodic shots of nature found in Terrence Malick.
Chung isn’t interested in grand drama, it’s the everyday drama of life that fills this story. It’s the buildup of everyday hardships that make the Yis’ story so emotionally deep. The Yis are literally planting roots in foreign soil and hoping they’ll take. Chung and cinematographer Lachlan Milne (Love and Monsters) work to show the beauty and the struggle of trying to grow something.
Though the filmmaking is top notch, what really solidifies Minari as one of the best films of the year is the acting. As patriarch Jacob, Yeun is a blend of bold-faced hope and crushing responsibilities. His Jacob has worked all his life to provide for his family, a horrible grueling labor that leaves him sore and with headaches. He sees this farm as his grand chance to have something to show for all this work.
Jacob’s desperate hope contrasts brilliantly with the childlike petulance of Kim’s David. Kim, who before this film had only a Pottery Barn campaign credit, offers a charming, natural performance as the Yis’ youngest son. Old enough to pick up on the tension between his parents, but not mature enough to understand it, his David acts out at every chance. It’s a fantastic piece of natural acting from a child.
As David’s foil, Youn gives one of the best supporting performances of the year. Soonja isn’t a traditional grandmother. David, inundated with the ideals of what a grandmother should be, isn’t sure what to do with this woman who smokes, shouts at wrestling matches on the TV, and doesn’t know how to cook. Youn’s performance sparkles with life and charm, she’s a firecracker of a woman.
If the winter gloom and pandemic blues are dragging you down, spend some time with the Yis as they try to get their American dream to bloom. Minari is filled with beautiful landscapes, wide open spaces, and most magical of all…hope.
Great Drama * PG-13 * 115 mins.