Minari tells the story of the Yi family, who move to Arkansas to start a farm in pursuit of their American dream. The film follows their struggles with nature, work, and what it means to be Korean-American. (That last discussion moves outside the film, as evidenced by debates online regarding whether Minari should be categorized as a foreign film for award nominations.) Written and directed by Lee Isaac Chung, the film illustrates the general in the specific. The film’s characters explore various subjects throughout; the challenges of building a new farm, of cultural and age differences, and of what the American Dream and family look like.
Is the American dream, if one believes it exists, about providing for your kids? Or achieving your dreams to show them how it’s done? Must there be a separation—a choice—between the two? Sometimes the dream for our children’s future causes us to lose our connection to our children now.
As husband and wife Jacob and Monica, Steven Yeun and Yeri Han are sensational. There is a familiarity between them as well as discord arising from views that are not right and wrong—just different. Yeun is wonderful as a father trying to fulfill a dream for himself and his family, but struggling with the real-life challenges farming entails and how so much rides on just one season of crops.
This feels like a common tightrope balance in a relationship—one dreams big while the other partner remains grounded to tether them to reality. The question of priority—what matters in the moment versus what might not pay off until the future—are always debatable topics because life is unpredictable and often uncontrollable. You will feel sympathy for both Jacob and Monica, as both want what’s best for their family. They just differ on what that means.
Young David (Alan S. Kim) expects a baking, gentle grandmother, but instead has Soonja (Youn Yuh-jung), a grandmother who can’t bake and swears. David initially sees the differences as bad. Point of fact: none of the dialogue is staid, but flows effortlessly from one moment to the next. Their conversations move beyond the moment to life lessons, such as a warning grandma gives David when they encounter a snake in the woods: “Things that hide are more dangerous and scary.” Their relationship is the source of a lot of heart in the film as well as hilarity.
The score, composed by Emile Mosseri, is phenomenal. It captures every scene’s emotion—both the overt and the underlying. Some scenes will render you drenched in nostalgia while others, when the music enters, will cause you to cackle in shock and humor. By the end, the beauty, hilarity, and love this film inspires will leave you sobbing or, at the minimum, fighting back tears.
Some viewers may assume crash positions waiting for something horrible to happen; but the beauty resides in how understated the film is while still being a riveting, splendid piece of filmmaking. Nothing is explored in a heavy-handed, neon-signal manner.
Occasionally, the timing of the film feels disjointed; however it seemed part and parcel of the story. After all, struggles and conflict are usually disjointed. (Even the musical score feels wondrous and disjointed at times.) The direction is as beautiful as the film. It lives and breathes with a life all its own and works seamlessly with the rest of the components.
Minari is a moving, beautiful delight about struggle—struggle financially, struggle for identity, against preconceived notions, and for unity. Steven Yeun and Youn Yuh-jung deserve nominations. The idea that “American” has something to do with language or culture is stifling. When we lay out restrictions we extinguish the flame of creativity and beauty. Let’s allow creations to breathe.