Continuing with 2020’s big year for quiet films, the immigrant tale Minari seems to be making a splash. Written and directed by Lee Isaac Chung, Minari follows a Korean family’s move to Arkansas as they start a farm. The 2020 Sundance Film Festival winner stars Steven Yuen (The Walking Dead, 2018's Burning), Han Ye-ri, Youn Yuh-jung, Alan S. Kim, Noel Kate Cho and Will Patton and produced by Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner and Christina Oh.
Minari is set in the 80’s and told from Jacob Yi’s (Yuen) perspective. Jacob is married to Monica (Han) and they have two children – Anne (Cho) and David (Kim). David has a heart murmur, so his parents must be constantly mindful of him.
While Jacob works to get the farm up and running, he and Monica work at a factory as chicken sexers - separating the male chicks from the female chicks (yes, that is an actual job). The Yis moved from California to Arkansas – they’ve lived in the States for some time and are chasing the American dream across the country.
With both parents busy and Jacob working with Paul (Patton) to set up the family farm, Monica’s mom, Soon-ja (Youn), arrives to care for the kids. It’s here we see a focus shift as viewers follow young David and witness his displeasure with his grandmother.
Chung presents Minari as a personal story which stresses the importance of family – mainly in maintaining it, while simultaneously expressing the difficulty of achieving the American dream. It’s told passionately, which is apparent since the story is semi-autobiographical. Chung grew up on a farm in Lincoln, Arkansas and wanted for years to make Minari, but put it off. When he finally set out to complete his vision, Chung brought to life a tale that’s wholly unique but with universal themes.
The idea of living the American Dream has been filmed repeatedly, but few tell of building a farm from scratch - fewer still when that farm is run by Korean immigrants. From that perspective, the Yis not only have to battle the typical struggles of starting from nothing, they have to do so in a region where racism exists more promienently than Asians.
With that, Chung explores the typical racism that Asian immigrants might experience (for the Asians and Asian-Americans – how many times can you remember, as a child, being casually insulted by a non-Asian kid but the next second that same kid wants to hang out?), but Chung doesn't linger on its effects. Chung instead explores the complexities of marriage and parenting – Monica isn’t happy with Jacob for moving the family to a predominantly white rural area; they debate on how to raise Anne and David and argue over acceptable expectations for them; and Chung wrestles with the Yis’ struggles to assimilate at almost every turn.
Those issues drive Minari – it’s not easy to accomplish tasks of this nature. But doing so all while learning the way (and lay) of the land is gargantuan. As time passes, the difficulty level rises, which could lead to family crisis.
Although it meanders (and even drags) at points, Minari is a fresh story told from an unexplored vantage point. Every scene is honest and earnest and is confidently sold using outstanding performances from the entire cast, specifically Yuen (Yuen deserves more recognition for his entire body of work) and Youn.
Originally premiering on January 26th, 2020 at the Sundance Film Festival, where it won both the U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize and U.S. Dramatic Audience Award, Minari enjoyed a one-week virtual release on December 11th, 2020. It will be released theatrically on February 12th, 2021.
4 stars out of 5