This review contains spoilers.
“Minari,” just shy of two hours long, poses a universal question: Is it worth setting out for your dreams? The film answers affirmatively, a resounding yes — because the fruits of the journey and pressure to succeed outweigh the risk of losing. Writer-director Lee Isaac Chung drew from his own life to create “Minari,” a drama recognized for excellent acting by the American Film Institute and the Sundance Film Festival. Set in the 1980s, the slow-burning film gives us an intimate look into a Korean American family who struggles to establish a farm in the Ozarks.
Like the film’s namesake, the Yi family is as hardy as the minari plant, able to adapt and prosper in foreign swamplike soils. But unlike the plant, this family struggles to lay down their roots. Throughout the film, heavy rainfall and later devastating drought plague the family. Yet as dramatic as these external forces appear to be, the main conflict in “Minari” is the Yi family’s struggle to understand each other.
A storm brews, threatening the Yi’s modest farm. The patriarch Jacob (Steven Yeun) announces, “If a tornado hits, this house will fly away.” The tension between wife and husband culminates into a screaming match over strained finances. We learn that the tiny trailer home ate most of their savings, so the Yis literally cannot afford to lose this investment. Monica (Ye-ri Han) does not understand her husband Jacob’s pastoral dreams, and feels an immense loss of community after relocating to rural Arkansas. The rain rages on, as does the marital strife. The kids watch in the background wishing for peace between their parents. This scene seems too familiar for anyone who has seen their parents fight.
Adding to the family drama is the subplot between the son and the grandmother. When Monica’s mother (Yuh-jung Youn) moves into 7-year-old David’s (Alan Kim) room, the boy resents the introduction of foreign smells, strange crass language and shared space into his life. Their relationship evolves from hijinks involving Mountain Dew to shared appreciation of a nearby creek, where they plant minari. Youn’s portrayal of the unconventional grandmother is convincing, and you can really see the chemistry between Youn and Kim.
Outside of the natural disasters, everything in this film is subtle, even the casual racism. There is no overtly racist or stereotypical villain. Instead, Chung writes well-meaning white southerners who inadvertently share ignorant microaggressions. From an offbeat farmhand who tries to bond over foreign currency from the Korean War, to a peer who asks David why his face looks flat, these secondary characters intend to befriend the Yis despite their unsophisticated approach. The depiction of nuanced three-dimensional white people paints them as sympathetic.This film doesn’t give in to a simple trope and lazy dismissal by demonizing people, which attests to the film’s strength in humanizing its characters.
I also enjoy that film isn’t centered around the white perspective. There’s no instructional video or explanation that hits you over the head to highlight and isolate each cultural practice or Korean word spoken. There’s no “Hey look at that Korean tradition they’re following, and let me tell you how that works.” Instead, the onus is on the curious viewers to research.
“Minari” invites you to think of the Yi family as more than just “Korean American.” It could be argued that it is a universal desire that people want to simply enjoy life. The Yis live their lives, consume Korean food, speak with fellow Koreans after driving hours to Oklahoma City, and joke about attending church. So much of it can be related to my own experience, and I imagine this is doubly true for people of color who grew up in the Bible belt.
At a church party, David’s sister Anne (Noel Kate Cho) befriends a misinformed girl, who tries to guess Korean words by randomly going through random syllables. Anne is endearing in this scene, openly going along to teach her new friend Korean. However, the character’s lines are limited, so Anne does not get her own subplot. Instead, she’s the cautious daughter foiling outspoken WWE-loving Grandma and her prank-happy brother David.
At times, it feels like a missed opportunity to have more speaking lines for Anne. We begin to wonder what this preteen thinks of the whole family drama and what internal ordeals she’s struggling with as a young girl in a rural setting. Instead, I’m hoping that this perspective will inspire a new generation of filmmakers to potentially explore this narrative. Until then, “Minari” viewers will accept that the story is centered around either David’s, Jacob’s, or Monica’s point of view.
When Monica confronts Jacob for skipping his son’s doctor visit for a business deal, Jacob finally admits he’s aware of their delicate situation: “They need to see me succeed at something for once. Even if I fail, I need to finish what I started.” Jacob finally voices his main motivation.
The farm needs to survive for his ego. Jacob wants to prove his ability to provide for his family as the breadwinner. This is poetically echoed in Jacob and Monica’s own work as chicken sexers. In earlier scenes, Jacob explains to his son how the male chicks are killed since Americans don’t find them useful for consumption. In this fitting analogy, Jacob feels as disposable as the male chicks. Jacob is bogged down by the pressure of capitalism, cultural expectations and gender roles to succeed by all means necessary. Because failure means shame and the death of identity.
Yet, “Minari” argues for a different viewpoint. The film leads us to believe that failure is an accepted part of life that can bring many rewards. Additional trials and tribulations test the family, but they endure. Monica and Jacob come to understand each other, accepting that the family is more important than a physical farm. David accepts Grandma for all of her eccentricities, eventually becoming fond of her. And Anne just continues to be Anne, rolling her eyes but mostly getting along with everyone. In the end, the Yi family bonds grow stronger, prevailing through the mire just like the film’s namesake — the minari plant.
The film is worth the watch. Don’t expect “The Joy Luck Club” or any other Asian American film you’ve seen before in your ethnic studies class. It’s a film about people who are Korean, but the message of perseverance and failure transcends the immigrant experience. The story feels universal. Also, please enjoy the film for the beautiful indie aesthetics, long takes of nature, and convincing acting by the all-star cast.
Photo credits: A24