I don’t care if it’s only January. This is my favorite movie of the year. It’s been decided. In this semi-autobiographical story by director Lee Isaac Chung, Minari tells the story of a struggling young Korean-American family who has recently moved onto a farm in Arkansas in the ’80s. The family dynamics change as their grandmother arrives from South Korea.
At its heart, Minari tells the tale of the American Dream. Not just of the potential of that dream, but of the painful costs of attempts to achieve the dream. As a child of Chinese immigrants who also left their home country to find a better life, this story resonates a thousand times stronger for me as an audience member, as I imagine it will for the countless other children of immigrants. In fact, just in my own personal life, many of the events and landmarks in the Yi’s family life speak to me on a personal level. Parents who quarrel about money, the struggles of uprooting a family from a place with large Asian enclaves to a place with none, meeting and living with older relatives (it was my grandfather for us), and facing the not-so-subtle otherness doled out by those in your surrounding community.
Minari is immensely personal and intimate, not shying away from authenticity for fear of alienating the viewer. Somethings may seem unfamiliar, but the sentiment is recognizable. The story starts with a father, Jacob Yi (Steven Yeun), uprooting his family from California to Northwest Arkansas for cheaper land and a dream of farming Korean vegetables. Again, speaking as a daughter to a Chinese cook who had constant dreams of opening up a restaurant, this felt like familiar ground for me.
Jacob and his wife Monica (Han Ye-ri) have spent the last decade working for meager pay as chicken sexers. But, in the competitive landscape of California, Monica works at a slower pace and struggles to keep a job. However, the Asian population in California offers the family some semblance of a social life even in a strange land. This comes into stark contrast as the family car pulls up to their farm in Arkansas and they are faced with a trailer style home on cinder blocks. The land, we learn, has already faced an attempt at farming and has been deemed cursed. But Jacob is determined, and so his family must follow.
Struggling in seemingly all aspects of life, Jacob and Monica argue over the new home, money, and Monica’s mother coming to live with them. On top of that, their young son David (Alan Kim) suffers from a heart murmur, which leads Monica to constantly tell him not to run. The two children, David and his older sister Anna (Noel Cho) also encounter a new community of people who view his family as outsiders. There are no harsh slurs being thrown, but the insensitive questions and lingering looks are damaging none-the-less.
Amidst these new conflicts comes Monica’s mother, Soon-ja played by the incomparable Youn Yuh-jung. If you have even dipped a toe into Korean television and media, you know Youn. With a career spanning half a decade, she brings her monumental talent to Minari as a foul-mouthed unconventional grandmother who breathes a new life into the family. Loving, funny, and kind, Soon-ja bonds with David after sharing a bedroom with him. To the young boy, this strange grandma who “smells like Korea” and feeds him noxious herbal medicine is initially unwelcomed (she doesn’t even bake cookies!).
But as the story picks up, David and Soon-ja become closer and the family slowly, but surely, adapts and yes, assimilates. Minari is heart-warming and frank. And in its presentation, we as viewers are also forced to assimilate to the family’s standards. There’s no handholding here, no explaining Korean culture, and no family speaking perfect English (the most realistic note to have when writing an immigrant story). Minari drifts and floats gracefully across the screen, transporting us to that little farm in 1980’s Arkansas with ease. Chung delivers a tremendous story and all I can do is marvel at it with tear-filled eyes and sing its praises.