Films about the struggles of adapting and assimilating and chasing the American Dream are quite abundant. We often see them set in the hustle and bustle of a big city. Yet Lee Isaac Chung has different plans with his charming, partial autobiographical familial drama Minari. From it’s metaphorical title that refers to the Asian herb that’s known for being able to grow anywhere near water, Minari‘s central family isn’t new to the U.S., they’ve been living their for some time and have carved out a life for themselves in California. Yet Jacob Yi (Steven Yeun) has dreams beyond being a cog in industrialized farming as people who separate chickens by sexes, so he moves his Korean-American family to the rural outskirts of Arkansas where he and his wife Monica (Yeri Han) continue the same Chicken-based job, all while attempting to build a more fruitful living with their own farm growing Korean produce.
All the joys and struggles of this journey are captured with a keen, warm tenderness by Chung. And from the start, Chung sets his focus on the minor moments of the Yi family’s dream chasing. We never see the construction of the barn for their farm nor the accumulation of decorations for their home. Instead, Chung zeros in on the heartfelt interactions between Jacob, Monica and their two children: David (a delightful Alan Kim) and Anne (Noel Cho). But at first, Jacob arrives at their Ozark farmland with a much more narrow mind, locked in with a hellbent kind of happiness that he must show his family he can succeed. But Monica, a practical woman concerned about raising a son with a heart murmur in a town that’s an hour away from the nearest hospital, isn’t quite convinced on the whole plan. How can they build a foundation for their family in a house on wheels? She glares at her husband in a way that implies a thousand unheard arguments, or the same argument a thousand times: “This isn’t what you promised.” But it’s also not before long when they add a new addition with the arrival of Monica’s mother Soonja (Youn Yuh-jung) and the dynamics begin to shift. She brings a piece of their native country back in the forms of chili powder and anchovies, resulting in tears of joy from Monica. And it’s this sense of having nothing familiar around them that rings true throughout the film in so many other similar situations.
A playful and vulgar old woman with an impish sense of humor, Soonja is the coolest grandma a kid could ask for, but David is reflexively disgusted that she doesn’t line up with his Americanized understanding of what a grandma should be. She doesn’t bake. She “smells Korean.” She’s his perfect foil, even if he isn’t yet perceptive enough to realize it. It’s that grandma-grandson bond that grows most poignant throughout the film. As he pees the bed, she lovingly makes fun of his “broken penis,” and he earnestly plays back. His adoration of Mountain Dew, hilariously referred to as “mountain water,” catches on and she applauds his cleverness after a riotous moment of misbehavior. Their playfulness is conveyed with a sense of sincerity and joy that would make the likes of Ozu and Kore-eda proud. (It also helps that Yuh-jung is extraordinary in her role; personifying the elegant way Chung keeps Minari balanced between naturalism and melodrama.) As both David and Anne begin to meet the American youth at their church, the film shows the childishness nature of their assimilation with peers. One boy asks David why his face is so flat and after he says it’s not, they simply become good friends. For another girl, she goes through similar-sounding words until she lands on one that Anne recognizes in Korean. These situations of cross-cultural learning come across less prejudiced than they are simply born out of naivety in this rural town.
For Jacob, played with a quiet steadfastness by Yeun, his culture clash comes with an eccentric Pentecostal local man (Will Patton), who speaks in tongues, carries a cross for miles on Sundays and rids Jacob’s land for demons. As they work together on the farm, they come to a mutual understanding on their different paths in life and embrace the peculiarities of each journey. When the outside world often only sees and criticizes things at face value, Minari shows the companionship that can be reached when some interest and effort is put in.
From the opening notes of Emile Mosseri’s ethereal score to the way that Monica keeps tugging Jacob back to reality, Chung’s play of memory seems to always be poignantly in flux between shared recollection of the past and conflicting visions of the future. Even as it occasionally hits moments of slightness, Minari posits family as the ultimate journey, only to explore how difficult it can be to agree on a destination. Is Jacob trying to prove what’s possible for himself, or is he doing his best to build something for the next generation? Is there any way those two goals might be able to overlap before Monica has to pull the cord? If the film’s finale registers as uncharacteristically intense for a movie that otherwise trades in quiet observations and expressive grace notes, Minari is held together by how it always feels like a daydream. At one point, eager for David to stop wetting his bed, Monica gives her son some advice. She tells him that the next time he goes to pee, he should stand at the toilet, pull open his cheeks, and ask himself: “Is this a dream? Is this a dream?” We can only assume that David will outgrow that tenancy one day, and yet, in the end, dreams and reality have seldom been more indistinguishable from each other. Through Chung’s eyes, that’s precisely what makes them both seem possible. A tender, charming and warm memory piece, Minari is a naturalistic tale of a family growing apart and together; a film that grows in it’s honesty and firmly plants itself in your heart.
Minari screened at the 2020 Hamptons International Film Festival. A24 will release the film sometime later this year.