There’s an old saying on the nature of stories: at their best, they should simultaneously be as old tales told as new, and new ones defined as classics. Writer-director Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari is an exemplar of the adage, recontextualizing the age-old American Dream for an underrepresented subject. The film is a thoughtful work of art, and is necessary viewing for a full understanding of what some claim to be the greatest nation on Earth. Spoilers below:
Based in part on Chung’s life, Minari is the story of the Yi family, Korean-Americans who have relocated from California to somewhere in rural Arkansas, where father Jacob (Steven Yeun) hopes live as a farmer so as to provide for his wife Monica (Han Ye-ri) and children Anne (Noel Kate Cho) and David (Alan Kim). They are soon joined by Monica’s mother Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung).
Jacob is a pragmatic and stubborn man. He rejects the services of a water diviner, thinking the trade to be superstitious, and in what aid that he does hire from Paul (Will Patton), a religiously devout eccentric, Jacob is several times befuddled by his help’s expressions of faith. In his quest to become a farmer, Jacob’s concerns and sensibilities are, quite literally, more earthly.
It is in this way then that Jacob resembles an American pioneer, relying on his own wits and intuition to live off the land among locals whose ways are strange to him. Though several decades removed from his more prototypical predecessors, Jacob’s journey and struggle is no less a part of their canon, and Minari is a refreshing reach of representation that warmly and affectionately reminds viewers that America is the melting-pot of nations.
Though he is the patriarch, Minari is hardly Jacob’s story alone, and the theme of adaptation to new (in this case, personal) environments is shared among the rest of his family, and mirrored in Soon-ja’s planting of the titular minari dropwort, famed for its resilience in new and difficult terrain. Daughter Anne persists against several social tribulations, and son Jacob must for the sake of the family learn to respect Soon-ja, who herself yields to some of the boy’s demands of acting like a “real” grandma.
Having the hardest time adjusting is wife and mother Monica, whose overt dissatisfaction with their relocation and the fruitless toil of Jacob’s labor strains the family from the top down, when coupled with Jacob’s obstinance against reconsidering his life choices. This spousal conflict is the clever result of Jacob’s aforementioned practicality: in pursuit of physical and social survival, Jacob has forsaken the spiritual and emotional needs of his family.
Or, so the film tries to tell you by its climax, but I myself am not so convinced, or at least compelled. Minari is a film with a softer touch. Its characterizations are subdued and its plotlines are for the most part undynamic and at worst narratively insufficient. This delicacy is ironically accentuated by the otherwise angelic score from Emile Mosseri, whose sounds as they are heard in the film are often quite lulling.
But in the spirit of perseverance, these flaws are usually overcome and obscured by the talent of the film’s lead performers, with special kudos to Cho and Kim, who are no doubt precocious in their talent.
Minari is a good film, in spite of whatever few problems I might have with it. Often framed by cinematographer Lachlan Milne in the tradition of regionalism, that most American of art forms, Minari is beautiful to look at. It’s beautiful to listen to, and it’s beautiful to consider what it means for American movies moving forward.