Minari is an exquisite portrait of a Korean-American family’s struggle in uniting during the most tumultuous time in their lives. As they embark on a journey that takes them from California to a small farm in Arkansas, writer-director Lee Isaac Chung offers a vividly captivating and heartfelt story that flourishes in its specificity while examining the beauty and difficulty in starting over.
Monica (Yeri Han) isn’t exactly thrilled when her husband Jacob (Steven Yeun) moves their family, son David (Alan S. Kim) and daughter Anne (Noel Cho), to Arkansas on the promise of a fresh start. Jacob wants to grow a “garden,” but that garden quickly becomes a farm as Jacob stubbornly works to realize his dreams of working his own land instead of being a chicken sexer for the rest of his life. The children don’t mind the move so much, but the primary contention between the couple stems from the diverging goals they each have for their family. Monica’s mother Soonja (Yuh-Jung Youn) is flown in from Korea to live with them in an attempt to assuage the tension within the Yi family as they find their place in a new home.
Based on Chung’s childhood, Minari is complex and nuanced. The title of the film is after a Korean herb which grows wherever it’s planted and it’s a lovely parallel to the Yi family’s journey. Jacob wants to plant new roots, but Monica believes he’s lost sight of their family and is focused on his own selfish needs to make something of himself by building a legacy. The two clash at various points throughout the film as Chung realistically explores the ways in which a marriage can be strained to the point of breaking despite the fact that they still care for each other.
Yeun is outstanding. Since leaving The Walking Dead, Yeun’s movie choices have been intoxicating and he’s been giving terrific performances. Minari is no exception. As Jacob, Yeun’s eyes alone work through a myriad of emotions that convey the character’s internal struggle. The same can be said of Han, whose performance is emotional and riveting. Kim is a joy as David, innocent in his youth while understanding that his parents fighting is not a good thing. Youn is particularly great as David and Anne’s spunky grandmother.
What’s more, the characters’ interiority is delicately explored. Chung masterfully crafts and balances everyone’s perspectives without pointing fingers of blame. It’s rather impressive considering how often a point of view can lean toward a particular character while painting another as an antagonist — this is especially true when it comes to the dynamics of marriage. The gentle reverence with which Chung navigates the storyline makes for a compelling, sympathetic execution that doesn’t lose sight of the connection that binds the family together. Minari is serene, like the gentle laps of waves on the shore. The director never lets the story get away from him and this groundedness firmly keeps us riveted by every detail . Like the minari herb, the Yi family is trying to grow. However, they’re stuck in the past and unsure of the future, stalled by their pride and stubbornness until it’s too late to avoid the root of their issues.
Monica and Jacob both have expectations — Monica to live a stable life to support Anne and David, who has a weak heart, and Jacob to live the American dream in a way that is unique to being a Korean-American and building a lasting legacy. Even David, as young as he is, dislikes his grandma at first because she “isn’t a real grandma.” At least, she’s not what he thinks a grandma should look or act like. Ultimately, the realities don’t live up to these expectations and the Yi family must readjust or replant themselves in a new environment. Chung relies on his memories to bring his family to life and it is emotional, gripping, and quietly beautiful. In short, Minari is one of the best films this year and it’ll leave you with so much to think about after it’s over.
Chung relies on his memories to bring his family to life and it is emotional, gripping, and quietly beautiful.