“Minari” is a tender portrait of one family’s dreams and disillusions

Eva Moschitto, Staff Writer

“What is this place?” asks Monica (Yeri Han), in front of the pale yellow trailer where her husband stands. “Our home,” Jacob (Steven Yeun) responds. Written and directed by Lee Isaac Chung, “Minari” chronicles one Korean American family’s struggle to establish its identity in the Ozarks in the 1980s.

“[The film] arises out of my own memories” reflected Chung, the son of Korean immigrants to the United States. “Minari” portrays a boy’s perspective on his family’s move to Arkansas, where his parents work as chicken sexers in order to finance their farming of Korean vegetables. However, while the perspective of the boy David (Alan Kim) mirrors aspects of Chung’s childhood, this perspective is also “decentered,” making the film a personal and retrospective journey for the American-South Korean director, he explained to the Santa Barbara International Film Festival.

“Minari” follows one family with intentional specificity, allowing its members to exist as humans rather than caricatures of Asian Americans. In an interview with “The New York Times,” actor Steven Yeun added: “Explaining myself to white people isn’t something I want to do.”

Neither does the film, which is mainly in Korean with some English interjections, reflecting the authentic tension between assimilating and retaining one’s culture. “There’s a subjectivity there,” said Chung of the film’s use of Korean in private and English in public. “Inside of the home it was always Korea.”

Even Jacob’s Korean accent, which Yeun described as “different … [having] its own twang and inflections,” reflects Yeun’s memories of his father as opposed to some “collective understanding of what a Korean accent is traditionally supposed to sound like.”

These details serve to highlight part of the Asian American experience Yeun described as “what it’s like when you’re thinking about everyone else, but nobody else is thinking about you.”

This struggle, alongside life’s persistent humors and joys, is displayed through nuanced performances from each of “Minari”’s cast members.

Jacob’s hopeful, and sometimes blinding, determination to succeed as a farmer echoes Yeun’s own father.

Monica’s pragmatism and fidelity to her family allows her character to fully materialize as a well-rounded human being instead of merely serving as an obstacle to Jacob’s American dream.

While “Minari”’s characters have unique flaws, Chung refuses to pass judgement, painting each with understanding and respect.

David (Alan Kim) and his father Jacob (Steve Yeun) survey the land (A24, Plan B Studios)

Of course, one can’t mention “Minari”’s spectacular acting without commending seven-year-old Alan Kim in his film debut, or veteran actress Yuh-jung Youn, who plays a stubborn, witty grandma Soonja.

The characters’ unlikely friendship — David initially complains that “Grandma smells Korea” — is both heartwarming and hilarious. Soonja teaches David to swear and win card games; David provides Soonja with company and a dose of healthy wisdom. In the end, each reveals their abundant strength.

In the end, Jacob’s American crops fail, yet the minari, a Korean vegetable transplanted by Soonja, flourishes.

Yeun summarized, “[Portraying Jacob] became a way for me to see myself clearer.”

“Minari,” replete with Lachlan Milne’s luminous cinematography, Emile Mosseri’s poetic soundscape, cast members’ powerful performances and Chung’s compassionate gaze, holds a mirror not only to Yeun, or to a generation of immigrant parents, but perhaps to the audience as well.

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