Lee Isaac Chung’s 2020 film Minari is a captivating slice of life story. Following a Korean family as they move to rural Arkansas in the 1980s, Minari brings to life a uniquely immigrant story while also being a universal and relatable story about family, community and the American dream.
Believing their lives here will be more prosperous than their lives were in California, Jacob Yi (Steven Yeun) settles on a large plot of land in Arkansas. With his wife Monica (Han Ye Ri), two American-born young children David and Anne (Alan Kim, Noel Kate Cho) and mother-in-law Soon Ja (Youn Yuh Jung), Jacob dreams of running a successful family farm and is determined to make it happen. He enlists the help of local man Paul (Will Patton) to get the farm up and running.
However, it’s far from smooth sailing. As optimistic as Jacob and his family are, the difficulties strain Jacob and Monica’s marriage and the family must adjust to their new environment in different ways.
Minari is a uniquely immigrant story, but also not representative of the entire immigrant experience. It is the story of this immigrant family who see an opportunity try to make that sometimes elusive “American dream” their reality.
Minari does not dwell on fish out of water stories. The Yi Family aren’t stereotypical city folk bumbling their way around the countryside. Nor are they exotic foreigners in some bland, vanilla community. The film focuses on them and the relationships within the family rather than the family with the outside.
The cultural divide between America and Korea is amusingly and effectively conveyed in pretty much every scene between Grandma Soon Ja and her grandchildren. Most especially with little David. While it is more bluntly depicted though Jacob and Monica’s strained relationship.
Veteran actress Youn Yu Jung is just excellent as Grandma Soon Ja. Both warm and funny, the now-Oscar nominated Youn gives the film its heart. She and the young Alan Kim as David together bring to life the film’s most emotional and impactful scenes. Alan Kim also shares wonderful scenes with Noel Kate Cho as his sister Anne. Both delivering familiar experiences growing up as second-generation immigrants.
The film may touch upon the family’s assimilation into their new community, but it maintains a uniquely Korean voice throughout. And that’s especially in those interactions.
Some may say the “American dream” is an unrealistic idea. An idealistic, pie in the sky attitude that may do more harm than good. But that so-called American dream is different for everyone. And in Minari it is simply a Korean immigrant family grabbing an opportunity and doing what they can to achieve the goal of a good, comfortable life.
No dreams of fame or fortune. But also no pessimistic expectation of doom. The film balances what are universal, relatable themes of the everyday American experience with the unique challenges the Yi Family face.
Steven Yuen (also Oscar nominated) gives a greatly nuanced performance as the Yi patriarch. A familiar father figure, but also a conflicted man that resists failure and has an independent mindset. He and Han Ye Ri as Monica have strong chemistry that allows for the roller coaster of emotions in their relationship feel grounded and have depth.
Minari‘s cinematography and careful direction emphasize and enhance the slice of life feel of the story. That humble, down to earth treatment offers a bit of nostalgia and reminiscence and helps to bring everything together into a complete package.