Despite most of the dialog is in Korean with English subtitles, writer/director Lee Isaac Chung’s semi-autobiographical “Minari” is one of the most “American” films I’ve ever seen in recent years, telling a story of a Korean-American family struggling to build a life in Arkansas in the 1980s. The film is a warm and wonderful piece that reminds us of both the family affection and the true meaning of the American Dream.
If you are wondering what exactly is “minari,” it’s a herb that is widely used in Korean cooking and can easily thrive even in the most extreme condition – just like the immigrant family in the film’s center. After making three low-budget independent films, Chung finally got a chance to make the most personal film in his career, which strongly related to his own background: a second-generation Korean-American who spent his childhood in rural Arkansas. The film itself is a story of resilience, and Chung explores the relationships between family members in an astonishingly gentle, detailed approach that often recalls two great Japanese masters: Hirokazu Kore-eda and Yasujiro Ozu.
Enters Yi family, a Korean-American family that moves from California to Arkansas for a new life. When they lived in the West Coast, Jacob (Steven Yeun, well known for the zombie hunter in “The Walking Dead”) and his wife Monica (Yeri Han) worked as chicken sexers, who manually separate the male newborn chicken from females (females are kept for eggs and meat, males are disposed, literally). “Minari” opens when Jacob drives Monica and their children: Anne and David (Noel Kate Cho and Alan Kim respectively. Both deliver tremendous acting debuts) to a middle land in Arkansas, where Jacob buys a trailer-house and plans to grow Korean fruits and vegetables to support the family financially.
The moment they arrive at their new home, we can clearly see Jacob desperately treats the land as some kind of Eden while Monica questions Jacob’s decision of moving to a place where lack of community and very few Korean-Americans live nearby. Yeun’s multilayered performance explores Jacob’s conflict between chasing his dream and taking care of family, and Han terrifically delivers the loneliness and unhappiness of a wife and mother who tries her best to stay silent and be supportive. The growing tension between the couple sometimes makes Anne and David shoot paper planes that crayoned “Don’t fight” to their parents. Chung uses this very small moment to show the children’s desperation and fear when facing the fights in their family.
However, the film balances the stress with its heartwarming humor, especially after Monica’s mother Soonja (Korean veteran actress Yuh-Jung Youn, now very likely to become the first Korean actor to win Oscars) moves in with them. Soonja is not the typical type of grandma you’ll see in any other film, and once Youn arrives, she steals the entire film with her wicked comedic performance. She loves playing card games, drinking Mountain Drew (they believe it’s healthy water from mountains), and watching wrestling on TV.
Unlike his family, David was born and raised in America, so everything in Korea seems very far from him. He dislikes the traditional food Soonja brings from Korea, and he complains “Grandma smells like Korea” when he was asked to share the room with grandma. For Chung, who also born and raised in America like David, and other second-generation immigrants, “Minari” is a graceful reminder of the roots of their cultural origins. Of course, not only the young David, all the family members face their personal struggles, some are complicated and some are simple in a beautiful way.
“Minari” incredibly close observation examines the core of the “America’s value,” in which Chung depicts the great cost when people, or their parents, from all over the globe invest in their American Dream. Cinematographer Lachlan Milne’s dreamlike lens captures the isolation of adjusting yourself to a new life, and Emile Mosseri’s light score adds poetry in this narrative that feels both epic and intimate on the same level. “Minari” delivers a very personal emotion that feels like home and a cinematic experience that is lovely. It’s not only a subtle story of immigration but also a great tale of the universal vibe of being alive.
- Distributor: A24
- Production: Plan B Entertainment
- Director: Lee Isaac Chung
- Writer: Lee Isaac Chung
- Producer: Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, and Christina Oh
- Cast: Steven Yeun, Yeri Han, Alan S. Kim, Noel Cho, and Yuh-Jung Youn
- “Minari” premiered at 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Released in theaters and VOD on Feb. 2021
Read the review in Chinese