I remember when my grandmother first came to the United States to visit my family. My parents, my sister, and I went to the airport to pick her up. I didn’t recognize the woman my mother frantically waved down until she made her way through the crowd and stood poised before me, stylish luggage and purse in hand.
My mom, of course, was overjoyed to see her mother. My dad quietly took her bags and made his way to the car while my sisters and I bowed to her like proper Korean granddaughters. For the next few weeks, she would be staying with us in our little house, which had never before seen a guest.
Director Lee Isaac Chung’s film Minari draws on his life as a little boy in Arkansas. Jacob Yi (Steven Yeun) has big plans to establish a farm and make something of himself, while his wife Monica (Han Ye-ri) wants a stable life for their children. Both left Korea to start a life together in the United States with their daughter Anne (Noel Cho) and their son David (Alan Kim)—the star of the movie and the surrogate for Chung’s story. The Yi family soon experiences firsthand how difficult—and almost impossible—it is to create a new life and home in a new environment. Money’s tight, David has a heart problem, and their situation only grows tenser when Monica’s mother, Soonja (Youn Yuh-jung), comes to live in their trailer house.
The film amazed audiences at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2020 before its limited release in December 2020. Minari became available for streaming on Feb. 26 this year.
Minari is such a powerful work of art that it’s difficult to know where to begin. The central focus for most viewers will likely rest on the cast’s masterful performances. Yeun portrays exactly how a Korean-American immigrant father can obstinately follow his own path and brush off heavy questions about how the family is supposed to find stability in their future. Ye-ri, as a perfect complement, knows how to ask these piercing questions while still maintaining a quiet and composed exterior. Cho understands which scenes demand a playful older sister and which ones require a more complex, nuanced little girl who’s having struggles of her own. And at the heart of it all, Kim soars with a performance that doesn’t seem like an act at all. He so excellently embodies a spirited yet tame youngest child, to the point that it’s hard to believe the cast onscreen isn’t his true family.
Minari’s cinematography and scene sequences create the effect of watching a reel of memories—fitting the work’s partly autobiographical nature. For example, when David goes to sleep one night, we aren’t shown the rest of his parents’ fight. Instead, we wake up with David the next morning, and David’s parents tell us how things are going to be from now on.
Short takes and montages interrupt longer scenes that typically dominate quiet films like Minari. This pacing further enhances the feeling of looking into David’s memories while working in enough tension to avoid long stretches of silence and inaction. Rather than solely relying on lengthier scenes to make Minari feel like an art film, Chung showcases little moments that punctuate the family’s daily life by showing Monica changing bed sheets or the children drinking Mountain Dew.
There’s a quiet tension in Jacob and Monica’s fights, particularly since the audience is shown their plight through the eyes of David—their anxious child. Minari, however, is also filled with tiny gestures of love and parental support. Monica doesn’t show her care for Jacob through a kiss or a hug. Instead, she washes his hair for him when he’s too tired from working on the farm all day to lift his arms above his head. And Jacob doesn’t extend comforting words or encouragement, but rather an offer to attend church next Sunday as a family.
These little moments delve into a deeper kind of love that might not necessitate, nor even allow, outward affection. Their marriage, like many immigrant families’, relies on steadfast priorities, compromises, and trust. Though David and Anne may feel anxious when their parents fight, they ultimately seem to know that their mom and dad would do anything to support them.
Within Monica and Jacob’s relationship comes an interestingly feminist lens that’s often difficult to find in Korean stories. For example, when David visits the chicken hatchery where both his parents work, his father finishes a task early and takes him out to wander in the grass while his mother continues to work, unable to keep up with Jacob. But, outside when David asks his father about the smoke coming out of the hatchery, Jacob openly tells his son that’s where the male chicks go. Without the ability to hatch eggs or even to taste food, male chicks are tossed into the fire. That’s when Jacob bluntly tells David that they both need to be useful to the family, either by providing financial support or emotional stability.
When so many Korean women have been made to question their worth and their contributions to their families, Jacob’s conversation with David is a necessary take on parental power dynamics. Though Jacob appears to be the driving force in the family, as he uprooted them in order to chase a new start to his life, Monica is in some ways more powerful in her stable, domestic role. She is unquestionably useful, while Jacob must prove his worth as a father who can provide for his children.
Non-Korean American audiences might not recognize or feel affected by all of the distinctly Korean images in the film, but it’s precisely these moments that strengthen Minari’s emotional impact. Minari isn’t made to reflect the experiences of white American audiences and families. Rather, the film spotlights the unique challenges that come with striking entirely new ground and trying to love each other through anything. Though it is a beautiful film in general, Minari is a story of and for Korean Americans, as Chung accesses a deeper cultural layer through props and mannerisms specific to Korean culture.
I found myself recognizing so much of my own grandmother in Soonja. The way her tone didn’t change much whether she was talking to her grandkids or her grown-up daughter, the way she became so absorbed in watching sports on TV, and even the way she stood up for David when his parents tried to scold him reminded me of those weeks my own grandmother spent living with me in America. Chung knows what he’s creating when he directs his actors, and he knows what the tiniest mannerisms will mean to his audience. This level of sophistication brings Minari out from the genre of culturally empowering movies and into the world of culturally significant art.
Photo Courtesy of A24