What’s the use in having a dream if you have no one to share it with? And what if you did? That’s a central theme in writer/director Lee Isaac Chung’s (Munyurangabo) latest drama, Minari, a film about a family of Korean immigrants who move to Arkansas in the 1980s to build a farm from the ground up.
Jacob Yi (Steven Yeun), his wife Monica (Han Ye-ri), and their two children move to the rural Southern state for a better life as farmers producing Korean produce for other Korean immigrants. Chung captures the essence of each role in a family, from the conflicting innocence with inherent self-absorption of children to the assumed responsibility of the father to “be useful” to his wife. Chung presents us with several protagonists throughout his story, finally landing on the one you’d least expect.
The Yi family has a wrench thrown in their new life when Monica’s mother (Youn Yuh-jung) arrives from Korea to live with them. She’s never met her grandchildren before, and David (Alan Kim), the youngest, is hesitant to accept her. He’s resistant to the denotation that her arrival puts a setback in his assimilation. Grandma is brash, opinionated, swears a lot, and steals money from the collection plate at church. To David, she’s not the mythological American grandmother, but the two of them slowly form their bond over the course of the movie, which is beautiful to watch. Grandma is the type of person who doesn’t need approval, but still knows the importance of her role in David’s life.
Chung doesn’t put all his eggs in one basket. There are dynamics at play between each character. We see how tensions between Monica and Jacob have risen due to Jacob’s new endeavor. Arkansas isn’t their first home in America. They moved there from California, but land is cheaper and Jacob has always dreamed of owning a farm. Monica has begrudged the move since they arrived and is constantly looking for reasons to support her feelings. She has faith in God, yet an obsessive need to control everything in her personal life.
There’s a spirituality that informs both the good and bad that happen throughout the story, but the director is a little too careful not to make his stance too apparent.
Monica is a family-first type of person, whereas Jacob is more balanced in his priorities. However, he soon gets so wrapped up in his new farm that he begins prioritizing his life accordingly – at least that’s how it appears to others. He already has a job as a chick sexer (it’s a lot less exciting than it sounds) and is very good at it, but he doesn’t want to be doing that for the rest of his life.
Their son, David, has a heart condition and their move has only made things more complicated. They live an hour from the nearest hospital, and Monica just wishes that Jacob was as panicked about his condition as she is. Grandma expresses the same lack of concern.
The acting, especially by the three adult leads, feels so natural and the characters are very lived in. Yuh-jung gives an especially nuanced performance as the elderly grandmother with flaws that actually make her more lovable. Her range becomes unveiled slowly and subtly throughout the film as her health declines.
Nothing about Minari ever feels too harsh or dissonant, for better or worse. This is a semi-autobiographical project for Chung, and you can sometimes tell he holds the story very close to him. The director constantly has a firm grasp on the relationship between work and family, and how those two things can alternate between being both symbiotic and dissonant.
Arcs and trajectories are always seeming to move in opposing directions. Each detail has a balance or counterpoint within the movie, which really helps the audience feel a sense of ease and comfort, but also reminds us of fate and how life has a funny way of lining everything up for you; giving you something great even if it takes something else away first.
Watching the payoff of something you’ve worked so hard to accomplish – reaping what you sow (quite literally) can give you the feeling of flying – but you can’t ever forget the reason why you wanted to accomplish it in the first place. And often it’s the investments that require less actual work that gift you with the greatest rewards. We work hard because it’s our duty, but things are going to happen how they happen no matter what we do.
Even if it occasionally has a hard time staying focused on its themes, Minari welcomes you with open arms into this family, despite their flaws. They’re loving and willing to be accepted without ever being desperate to do so. Depicted here is the grueling, yet freeing process of hard work, even if it doesn’t yield results in the traditional way. Lee Isaac Chung allows us to absorb the material effortlessly without having to stop and think too much about the plot, all the while giving us the experience of watching a captivating and deeply personal take on the American Dream.