Moving to America is perceived as a hallowed rite of passage. It conjures pilgrims boarding the Mayflower 400 years ago, buoyed up by the star-spangled promise of starting with nothing and making it big in the ‘New World’. By now, we have been plenty warned about the failings of the American Dream – its focus on capitalism and belief in meritocracy are frequently derided – but these shortcomings don’t stop people striving for it anyway, risking it all in the hope of a better life.
Set during Reagan’s 1980s, Lee Isaac Chung’s semi-autobiographical Minari compassionately depicts one such dreamer reaching towards this illusory goal. A South Korean immigrant tired of scraping by as a chicken sexer, Jacob Yi (Steven Yeun) relocates his reluctant family from California to Arkansas, where he plans to achieve his long-held ambition of opening a farm. His naysaying wife Monica (a gentle, reasoned Yeri Han) nervously watches on as he funnels their savings into this increasingly foolhardy enterprise. In an attempt to appease her, Jacob invites Monica’s mother Soonja (Yuh-jung Youn, lovably wacky) over from Asia to live with them and their two young children, and make the modest trailer they call a house something more of a home.
Primarily told from the perspective of the Yis’ troublemaking seven-year-old David (Alan Kim, a sweet little rascal), Minari plays out as a whispered remembrance of childhood: a series of honeyed days spent beneath the wide-open skies of the Ozarks, splashing about in creeks then recharging with two-handed gulps of Mountain Dew. The film empathetically explores the dynamics of this family caught between their Eastern roots and Western situation.
David’s own sense of displacement is keenly felt. Chung often positions him in liminal spaces – in doorframes, on thresholds, by windows – to illustrate how his bicultural identity has put him on the cusp; not even his mother and grandmother can agree on whether he’s a Korean or American kid. David initially rejects Soonja, demonstrating his unwillingness to engage with his heritage, a country he is ethnically tethered to but has never visited. “She smells like Korea,” he says, wrinkling his nose in distaste. “She can’t even read. She isn’t like a real Grandma.” He has unquestionably accepted the US conception of a cookie-baking, mild-mannered grandmother and found his own (a teasing straight-talker) to be sorely lacking.
Monica, meanwhile, is overcome with tearful delight when her mother arrives, and finds herself transported back to the flavours and scents of home with gifts of chilli powder, anchovies and deer-antler soup. Forthright and foul-mouthed, Soonja provides much of Minari’s expected fish-out-of-water comedy (watching the staged theatrics of wrestling matches sail over her head is reliably funny). More important, however, is how she serves as a link to the Yis’ shared history, reminding them of the joys they left behind in Korea. The movie collects scraps of memory from its characters and stitches them together into a multigenerational tapestry that authentically commemorates each individual’s experience of America: a patchwork of pride for their homeland, pressure to assimilate and, inevitably (though never heavy-handedly), casual racism.
Ignoring the quiet caution of his relatives, Jacob swallows the notion of American exceptionalism and perseveres in growing his farm, whose land proves less arable than advertised. This committed father is the latest in a recent string of critically acclaimed independent-film roles for Yeun – after Bong Joon Ho’s Okja, Lee Chang-dong’s Burning and Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You – and his wonderful, multilayered performance has earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor (becoming the first Asian-American to be recognised in this category). Arms smudged with dirt and forehead beaded with sweat, he ensures Jacob personifies exertion, digging and sowing and planting his fields to the point of limb-numbing exhaustion.
As the movie goes on, and farm life gets tougher, Yeun chips away at his character’s affable optimism, revealing the frustration and fear of defeat in his pliable features. The level-headed, practical Monica acts as a counterpoint to her husband’s boundless – and, at times, selfish – efforts to create his “garden of Eden”, and Han anchors Minari with her humane, unshowy work. The film exposes the fraying ends of Jacob and Monica’s marriage, piling up the concessions they each make for the other’s happiness. In one touching scene, David and his older sister Anne (Noel Cho), powerless to stop their parents arguing next door, crayon the sloping letters “Don’t fight!” onto paper aeroplanes and toss them into the room. In focusing on the specificities of one working-class immigrant family, Chung is able to offer incisive commentary on the crushing realities of starting afresh – and the resilience it requires – with relatable universality.
On the surface, Jacob’s overwhelming desire to create a thriving farm specialising in Korean produce is in service of his countrymen who also reside in the American South. Digging deeper, it is more than that. By cultivating Asian fruit and vegetables, the paterfamilias is putting down roots for him and his family: they are bringing themselves and their culture to America, and leaving their mark. As shoots rise from the earth, climbing shoulder-high and stretching up and up towards the heavens, you can practically hear the timeless US folk song assuring us, “This land was made for you and me.” Wistful and passionate, Minari is a gorgeously crafted film that synthesises the bittersweet pleasures of staying true to your past – and making space for your future.
‘Minari’ will be released in the UK and Ireland on Friday. For more information, visit Altitude.
In need of some at-home inspiration? Sign up to our free weekly newsletter for skincare and self-care, the latest cultural hits to read and download, and the little luxuries that make staying in so much more satisfying.
Plus, sign up here to get Harper’s Bazaar magazine delivered straight to your door.
You Might Also Like