Minari, the latest film from writer-director Lee Isaac Chung, tells the story of an immigrant Korean family’s struggle to make a new life in the United States.
The young father, Jacob, played by Steven Yuen, has scraped together enough money to buy some farmland in Arkansas, after years of dull and repetitive toil in the California poultry industry. His wife Monica, played by Yeri Han, is shocked when they drive up to their Arkansas trailer home—she didn’t expect to be way out in the middle of nowhere. Their youngest child David has a heart murmur, and he’s not even supposed to run. His mother thinks they live too far away from the nearest hospital. They also have a daughter who’s a little older, Anne, and she seems to adjust to things more quickly. It’s Monica, the mother, who increasingly loses her patience and her temper with Jacob, as his efforts to grow a vegetable farm run into repeated obstacles. He sees how overwhelmed she is, alone with the kids most of the time and with no friends, so he invites his mother-in-law to move there from Korea to live with them and help her daughter out. The arrival of the older woman, Soonja, played by Youn Yuh-Jung, is a blessing that helps to ease Monica’s mind somewhat, but she’s also a challenge to little David, who doesn’t like grandma and ends up playing a nasty practical joke on her that gets him into big trouble.
Steven Yuen is a familiar face from his role in The Walking Dead TV show, and he’s excellent here. Youn Yuh-Jung has been a big star in Korean movies and TV for decades, but now appearing in this one American film she won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, and it’s well deserved. She’s the glue that holds the story together and conveys the film’s ultimate meaning. Getting less notice is Yeri Han as Monica, but in some ways it’s the most difficult role. Homesick and angry at her husband for what she considers his neglect of the family for an irrational dream of being a farmer, her character is embodied by Yeri as a believable mixture of vulnerability and defiance.
The time period is never explicitly mentioned, but the lack of cell phones, and a few other stray references, made me realize that the story takes place at least thirty years ago. When I read later that Chung, the director, grew up in Arkansas, I figured out that the little boy David, who often represents our point of view character in the film, is Lee Isaac Chung as a kid, and this movie is his gentle tribute to his parents, sister, and grandmother.
There is one non-Korean character that plays a part in the drama: Paul, an eccentric older man who gets Jacob to hire him as a farm hand. Paul is a Pentecostal with mystical leanings, and Jacob, a firm believer in reason, has trouble adjusting to the man’s religious pronouncements. One Sunday, the family sees Paul carrying a wooden cross up the road. “This is my church,” he says. It’s a tribute to the film’s emotional honesty that Jacob can’t grasp Paul’s kind of faith, despite liking him as a person. Chung is resisting the temptation to tell a traditional story of assimilation. This family always feels a certain distance from the American culture that surrounds them, and in fact, it’s the act of reclaiming their connection to Korea, with the grandmother acting as a kind of bridge, that finally helps them feel at home.
The title of the film, Minari, is the name of a green vegetable that grows on the banks of rivers in Asia, and is used in a lot of different Korean dishes. The grandmother brings some minari to Arkansas, and plants some at a nearby creek. It’s a perfect symbol for the growth of an immigrant family in a new land, in this wise and graceful film.