Lee Isaac Chung’s Sundance winner and Oscar contender Minari is a familiar story on its surface. Following a family in Reagan’s America as they move to rural Arkansas to foster a new home and build an independent business, the film quickly establishes their pursuits and struggles alongside the likes of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. But unlike most canonical texts that track the futility of the American Dream, the Korean-American family in Minari have an extra card stacked against them – the Dream was never designed for them in the first place.
Observing the Yi family as they attempt to adjust to a different way of life, the film shifts perspectives from one family member to the next, approaching each with a deft gentleness rather than tracking a single individual’s view. Initially it appears to be following the youngest child David (eight-year-old Alan Kim in a phenomenal debut performance) as he gazes from the backseat of the car to his father in the front, but this is subverted when their arrival at the house reveals that the father had been driving separately in a moving van the entire time. Quietly, the film uses familiar tropes of editing to show a disconnect in the family before anyone has uttered a single word. The disconnection is both cultural and familial, and is quickly established as a ticking time bomb.
Steven Yeun, one of the great faces of contemporary cinema following his stellar work in Lee Chang-Dong’s Burning and Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You, performs as Jacob, the patriarch of the family, who presents himself with a mask of confidence that is slowly chipped away. “This is the best dirt in America,” he proudly tells his wife Monica (Han Ye-ri, in her first American production). Disregarding an American contract worker’s water dowsing technique, he instead simply digs where he thinks water will be until he finds it.
Jacob sees promise in the land and believes that if he tries hard enough, he will be rewarded for his hard work and achieve the American Dream of upward mobility. Monica, however, notices what he is willing himself not to see – their house (a converted caravan) is literally on wheels, a broken and precarious structure symbolic of the house of cards Jacob is betting his family’s future on – something that could easily shift or collapse at any setback and swallow them whole. The stability of the family is already precarious enough, with the parents’ marital issues exacerbated by David’s worsening heart condition. To Monica’s dismay, it becomes apparent as the film progresses that Jacob is willing to put his budding business ahead of the security of his family, precisely because he wants to provide for them.
The family’s struggle to hold on to their own culture proves to be as gruelling a battle as anything else. Neither of their children have been to Korea and the Southern town they move into has only a handful of Korean residents in an overwhelmingly white population. We are given a glimpse into the attitudes of the town in a scene where the family attempt to make friends by attending the local church. Although they are initially welcomed by the pastor, they quickly become isolated by the language barrier and the subtly racist remarks of the townsfolk. The small victories the family does achieve in the film mostly revolve around food – like Monica introducing their eccentric neighbour Paul (Will Patton) to a budding obsession with Kimchi, or in Jacob’s attempts to grow exclusively Korean vegetables to provide comfort for other immigrants.
The film is light-hearted while dealing with serious themes, balancing its dramatic arc with moments of humour throughout. Most of the comedy comes from the arrival of Monica’s eccentric mother Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung, Korean cinema veteran and a regular collaborator with Hong Sang-soo) from Korea. Soon-ja’s simultaneous disgust and infatuation with the crudeness of American culture (“Look at how big his muscles are!” She gasps in awe at wrestling on the television) is one of the funniest recurring parts of the film, and her relationship with her grandson David grows to become the emotional core of the film. David’s initial wariness of his grandmother gives way the more she teaches him to open up and not be afraid of the world.
Minari is a rare case of a film that finds broad appeal by concurrently exploring the bigger picture and the day-to-day details of the Korean immigrant experience, without going out of its way to hold the audience’s hand in a patronising or cynical way. Unfortunately the vast majority of US-produced films that tackle the experience of immigrants are stunted by a fervent need to comply with Hollywood clichés deriving from the same systems that make integration into the country a soul-crushing experience for many. True to the minari herbs that Soon-ja and the children plant by the creek, Minari is a journey full of joy and resilience; it holds out the persevering hope that different cultures can co-exist and flourish, and that hardship can bring families closer together.