Writer-director Lee Isaac Chung’s film Minari (VOD, February 26) opens with a small person rushing toward a vastness. Six-year-old David (Alan S. Kim) is in a car, gazing out at uncertain terrain. Emile Mosseri’s lovely score—a woozy chorus, sounding like a lullaby—seems to be gently ushering David and his family, rumbling along in their old station wagon, toward something difficult, but promising.
Indeed, the Yi family—Korean immigrant parents Jacob (Steven Yeun) and Monica (Yeri Han) and their children, David and Anne (Noel Kate Cho)—have traveled to a not terribly hospitable place in search of a better life. They’re in early 1980s Arkansas, a far cry from David and Anne’s native California, let alone Korea. Perhaps only Jacob, stern and ambitious, is one with big hopes: he dreams of starting a farm that will sustain his family on their own terms. Or on his terms, anyway. The rest of the family is either warily supportive, like Monica, or just along for the ride, as children usually are.
Chung’s film is autobiographical, which likely explains Minari’s loving, deeply empathetic tone, a warmth that imbues the film. These are real memories being cherished and offered up as Chung works to explain his own youth, but also tries to reckon with some version of his parents. As it unspools, Minari becomes a study in sober compassion. Chung has worked through the conflicts of his upbringing—his father’s stubbornness, the family’s rural isolation—and arrived at the grace of understanding, and all the forgiveness, regret, and affection that comes with that.
Minari could easily have been overly sentimental or conclusive, as so many other family dramas are, with a lesson learned and a bond forever strengthened. Chung, though, is resistant to such cliché. As the Yis settle into their trailer home on a large plot of only semi-arable land (access to irrigation water is the main issue thwarting Jacob’s plans), there are the expected fish-out-of-water moments. But contained within the Yi family are different fish from different waters; the children, in particular, chafe against not only their new surroundings, but also the ministrations of their grandmother, Soon-ja (Yuh-Jung Youn), who comes to live with the family, bringing with her the mores, smells, and flavors of the old country.
This is the multivarious reality of immigration: a process of many generational assimilations and rejections, rather than a single narrative of change, from one place and culture to another. While the family’s struggles occupy the foreground of the film, behind that are themes of identity, the tear between tradition and need, consistency and change. Caught in that flux are David and Anne, first-generation kids trying to get a wide-eyed picture of their home while forever cognizant of another land, one that seems to hold all the demands and expectations of their family’s history.
The film’s title refers to an herb common in Asia, carried to America by Soon-ja and planted on the banks of an Arkansas creek so it can thrive in the family’s new country. It may be an obvious metaphor, but it’s nonetheless richly effective. There’s a wonderful simplicity to Minari’s lilting poetry. It’s straightforward and accessible, yet still somehow profound. Chung is careful to subtly shade his film; we meet no outright villains, suffer no true melodrama, are spared corny adages doled out by wacky grandma.
As that fiery old lady, Youn has boundless oddball charm, shuffling around the family’s drab house and filling it with scratchy life. Soon-ja and David form a special bond, prickly and conspiratorial and funny. Those crucial strains of humor offset the pains of Jacob’s hardheadedness and Monica’s draining faith. Yeun and Han persuasively illustrate that strife, all the stresses bearing down upon these young parents as they come to the worried realization that shared experience may not be enough to hold them together.
Much of the movie plays as a collage of Chung’s memories, of incidents small and pleasurable, and those more grandly tragic. Oftentimes, that kind of patchwork memoir filmmaking undermines a narrative throughline, playing more as a collection of events than as a propulsive story—we tend not to remember linearly. Chung builds his way to a real climax, though, staging a moment of ragged family unity that gives way to a coda as touching as anything we’re likely to see this year.
Maybe the film’s existence is its own final message. Here is older David—well, Lee—telling us his family’s American tale from a remove that implies survival. Something did take root in that difficult soil—the way seeds often do, even when blown and scattered by indifferent winds. Minari is not a movie that celebrates the American dream, exactly. But it is a quiet and powerful honoring of people who have tried to grab at it, carrying twin homes on their backs, tilling the earth in search of purchase. The film suggests a catharsis for the filmmaker, there in a bittersweet sigh of recollection and reappraisal, of appreciation for the sacrifices made so that wonderful things could one day bloom.
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