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

Eva Moschitto, Staff Writer

“What is this place?” asks Monica (Yeri Han), looking towards 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 an 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 one boy’sperspective on his family’s move to Arkansas, where his parents work as chicken sexers in order to finance farming Korean vegetables. While the perspective of the boy, David (Alan Kim), reflects aspects of Chung’s childhood, it is also “decentered,” Chung explained to Roger Durling of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival.

“Minari” follows one family with intentional specificity, allowing its members to exist as humans rather than Asian American caricatures or tropes. “Explaining myself to white people isn’t something I want to do,” said Yeun in  an interview with The New York Times.

The film isn’t interested in that either, which is why it’s told mainly in Korean with some English interjections. This linguistic blend also reflects the real tension of attempting to assimilate while 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 specific 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 a 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.”

Each nuanced performance in “Minari” portrays this struggle. 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 her own person and not merely an obstacle to Jacob’s American Dream.

While characters in “Minari” 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 the film’s spectacular acting without commending seven-year-old Kim for 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 like Korea” — is both heartwarming and hilarious. Soonja teaches David to swear and win card games; David provides Soonja with company and a dose of wisdom. In the end, each reveals their abundant strength.

While Jacob’s American crops ultimately fail, the minari that Soonja transplants flourishes.

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

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