“Minari” and the Rediscovery of Humanity at Its Roots
Issue 13, Volume 111
By Suah Chung
Across the grassed expanse
I reach toward the horizon,
my face bronze against the light,
the American Dream.
“Minari” opens with the rolling hills of rural Arkansas, picturesque for its simple beauty but also jarringly empty, which is further emphasized by a gentle piano playing in the background. Directed by Isaac Chung, this film is a heartfelt nod to his childhood and memories of growing up as a first generation immigrant in Arkansas. Guided by a quiet and mature sensitivity, “Minari” vibrantly captures the emotional struggles of family life, ambition, and isolation that pervade the immigrant experience.
Chung illustrates his story through Jacob (Steven Yeun) and Monica (Han Ye-ri), a couple originally from South Korea who decide to move to Arkansas with their two children Anne (Noel Cho) and David (Alan Kim) after trying unsuccessfully to settle in California. Finding the job of chick sexing (separating chickens based on their sexes) monotonous and unfulfilling, Jacob persuades the family to move to Arkansas so he can attempt to achieve his dream of starting a farm and business selling Korean crops. At the beginning of the film, Jacob is an unfettered idealist, only capable of seeing the idyllic aspect of the American Dream. Monica, on the other hand, is disenchanted with the family’s trailer home and worries about the far distance from the city and its hospital, which they will need to visit to check on David’s heart condition. The two spouses serve as foils to each other—contrasting reflections of the American Dream—as they prioritize family in different ways. Jacob’s efforts for his family stem from his ambition as he wants to finally succeed out of pride for his kids, while Monica wants a safe home and sees the debt that may result from his endeavour. Jacob’s struggle to find a water source on the arid farmland and the danger of impending tornadoes only exacerbate the tensions, which erupt in fiery arguments.
Though the discussions end in a tense standstill and seem to mark a breaking point, the narrative instead takes a turn in a different direction with the arrival of Soonja (Youn Yuh-jung), Monica’s mother, who brings a subtle balance to the household. Jacob and Monica’s diverging views take a backseat, and the film moves on to explore the grandmother’s interactions with the other family members. After the audience learns that Soonja is Monica’s only remaining family in Korea, Monica’s recurring tears for simple things like ingredients that her mother brought from Korea are heart-rending and show her quiet strength in the way that she has repressed her homesickness for her children.
Though the slice of lifelike scenes with Anne and David are already charming, Soonja’s dynamic with the children, specifically David, steals the spotlight. David initially does not want to share his room, saying that Soonja “smelled like Korea.” Though a bit coarse, Soonja is a personality, swearing during card games and watching boxing matches in her briefs. David’s reluctant acceptance, in all its charm, makes their later playful bond all the more endearing to the viewers. Soonja’s interactions with David not only provide the audience with comedic relief, but also a symbolic change in scenery as she is the one who leads the children into the nearby forest. Given David’s heart condition, his mother doesn’t allow him to run or venture off. Under his grandmother’s guidance, though, David finds the courage and freedom to explore on his own.
In the depths of the forest, the titular object of the film—minari—is introduced. With seeds she brought from Korea, Soonja plants minari, a Korean herb that can withstand harsh weather and grows easily without much care. Minari represents the universal resilience of immigrants, who, in their independence and hardship, emerge the stronger for their experiences.
The implementation of Christian motifs throughout the film is also significant, since in the middle of rural Arkansas, the church is the only form of community that the Yis encounter. The church welcomes the family with open arms, but there is also a degree of discomfort as the mostly white members don’t really know how to interact with the family. Both David and Anne face covert racism, with one boy asking David why his face is flat and a girl making random sounds to Anne until she happens to create a Korean word. In later scenes, the Yis’ view of Christianity grows more complex as the symbols begin to represent a conflict in their immigrant experience. From Jacob’s farm, which he names “Garden of Eden,” to a baptism-like scene in which Monica helps Jacob rinse his hair after his arms are sore from farmwork, they struggle with the extent to which they should rely on their faith to get them back on track to success.
With its sweepingly dynamic and vibrant cast, “Minari” is more than just an Asian American immigrant story of struggle and identity. From the subtle cinematography to standout writing, it paints an intimate sketch of a regular family unit and their individual characters. Told from multiple perspectives, “Minari” manages to capture every facet of the struggle for the American Dream, weaving a narrative that reflects the present rather than dwelling on past nostalgia. Though the film does slow at times, it uses silence and the landscape to show rather than tell the story’s progressions. Most of all, “Minari” remains undeniably human, depicting crippling heartache and love at opposite ends of the spectrum, and it is stunning in its genuine execution.