American cinema has always loved the story of immigrants. But in the film Minari, opening in theaters nationwide on February 12th, the audience will get to experience a version of the “American dream” played out in a way that is quite different and refreshing.
This bilingual movie (the script is about 75% Korean) tells the story of Korean American couple Jacob Yi (Steven Yeun) and his wife Monica (Han Ye-Ri) who, along with their two children, had just moved from California to a rural town in Arkansas so Jacob can pursue his dream of running a farm. But from the onset, we could see the tension brewing between the couple, as it was clear the decision to uproot the family from a big city to the small town was not something the entire family had wanted. Seeing their new trailer home on wheels, Monica said “This is not what you promised.” But Jacob insists their new home is the place they are meant to be and grow as a family.
“Look at the color,” Jacob said as pointed to the soil on their property. “This is why I picked this place. This is the best dirt in America.”
The couple had previously spent about a decade in California working as “chicken sexers” in a hatchery, sorting female chicks from the males. The same line of work they also found in Arkansas, but Jacob hopes to one day give it up so he can be a full-time farmer planting Korean fruits and vegetables. We can see how both Jacob and Monica are hard workers and want the best for their children, pre-teen daughter, Anne (Noel Kate Cho), and 6 year old son David (Alan S. Kim). The kids look the part of “all-American” children, but writer-director Lee Isaac Chung made it clear these children are torn between 2 cultures. Anne and David speak Korean fluently at home with their parents and eat traditional Korean meals like rice and kimchi. But at the same time, they love drinking Mountain Dews and watching American wrestling on TV.
The story of Minari is loosely drawn from Chung’s own childhood when his parents moved to Arkansas to run a farm in the 1980’s. From behind the camera, Chung shows great skills in portraying vivid details, from the lush Ozark landscape to video clips of old- school Korean music videos the Yi’s had recorded from their native Korea. The Yi family, probably much like that of Chung’s, is going through the sometimes difficult and heartbreaking process of assimilation, not just to their new town but also who they are as a family.
The entire dynamic of the movie changes as Monica’s mother, Soonja, arrived from South Korea to live with the family and help raise the children. The grandmother (or “Halmeoni” in Korean), played by veteran Korean actress, Youn Yuh-Jung, is arguably the strongest performance among the cast. Little David’s acting also stands out, especially in the interactions with his grandma. Among some of the “cheekiest” moments in the film is when David and his sister comment how Soonja is nothing like a “typical” grandma. This is because she doesn’t bake, swears a lot, and even according to David “smells like Korea”. But in the end, it’s because of Soonja and what happened to her in several emotional scenes, that she shows us how she may be the true heart of this family and the reason that they will be able to overcome any challenges This idea is conveyed poignantly when Soonja, with the help of David, planted some “minari” seeds she brought with her from Korea alongside a nearby creek. She explains that minari is a hardy herb that over time, will thrive wherever it’s planted. By the end of the movie, we see how Minari can be compared to a family that is able to grow and survive any tough situations, with the help of faith and resilience.
A great film is one that has the ability to tell a story that feels universal, no matter the characters’ backgrounds or the languages they speak. I believe Minari will feel like a warm hug that many of us remember from our own “Halmeoni”. One that lives on in our memory long after she leaves us.
Minari opens in theaters nationwide on February 12.