The American experience has been a daunting task to capture cinematically. The vastness of the land and diversity of its people can be difficult to synthesize in the time frame of a feature-length film. Hollywood’s branding efforts to associate Americaness with glitz, glamour, whiteness, and success have been painfully transparent within this venture. Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari ignores the palatable cliches of Hollywood and, instead, revives the rural coming-of-age-genre within American cinema to produce a style and emotional impact that’s completely his own. Merging together his own memories as a second-generation immigrant, Chung’s Minari depicts the risk, isolation, humor, and resilient love that bonds generational families together in a way that feels nostalgic, and distinctly American.
Minari follows the family of two South Korean immigrants, Jacob (Steven Yeun) and Monica (Yeri Han) as they and their two young children arrive in rural Arkansas in hopes of maximizing their potential as farmers after leaving their previous home in California. Although the film is often experienced through the eyes of the children in this family, David (Alan Kim) and his older sister, Anne (Noel Kate Cho), the film equally and subtly extends room to each of its characters while allowing their individual journeys to grow and intertwine with each other’s triumphs and struggles organically. Jacob’s balancing act with his roles as father, husband, and neighbor begins to crumble as the pressure to fulfill the families’ financial responsibilities quickly amounts to a tonal heaviness that is achieved through Yeun’s raw performance and Chung’s breathtakingly honest directorial style. As the audience becomes deep-seated in wondering if the family’s move from California to a random meadow in the middle of rural will be financially worth it, the experiences of David and Anne as they attempt to make sense of their new life, while navigating the turmoil and magic of growing up under exacerbated circumstances, amplifies the unique and familiar charm of the film.
Through low angle shots that mimic the youngest of the family’s view, David’s relationship with his Grandma, played by legendary South Korean actress Youn Yuh-Jung, pierces our hearts and provokes laughter that stems from our own childhood memories. Under the strain of having to work full days to make ends meet for their family, Monica and Jacob decide that Monica’s mother will move from Korea to Arkansas to babysit the children. Although the film is set in the 1980s, few visual markers of this era exist in the film except for glimpses of images from television screens and vintage Mountain Dew bottles, which the children and grandma begin to call “mountain water.” Despite subtle visual cues, the universal atmosphere of Minari is best crafted through the intergenerational displays of love and conflict that connect its characters.
Affected by the distress of physical and emotional isolation and an unwavering pressure to “fit-in,” second-generation David often rejects his grandmother and her cultural ways upon her arrival to the family’s trailer-turned-home. David repeatedly remarks out loud that his grandmother doesn’t act like a “real grandma.” While there’s truth to this statement, given that David’s grandmother is not the cookie-cutter image of what a grandmother is supposed to be in the eyes of American media and literature, she is deeply loving, funny, and endlessly insightful. During a walk one day to the creek near the families’ home, David’s grandmother teaches David about minari, a Korean vegetable that will flourish under the moist conditions of the creek with the seeds she’s brought from Korea. David and his grandmother humorously take jabs at one another in a way that is a testament to how thick skin is made over time, a predicament that some second-generation immigrants find necessary to develop as a coping mechanism to combat their isolating status in the USA. Tough love floats on screen through moments of laughter, learning, and pain.
The profoundness and overall strength of Minari is rooted in its balanced grasp of the film’s tonal shifts that mirror the full range of emotions experienced in human life. While the funny moments are hysterical, the film’s darker shifts sting as they reach the audience’s own painful memories, especially for those that can relate on a personal level to the ostracizing experience of feeling like an outsider in the place you were born. Anxiety and dread transform the atmosphere when Monica and David are staley introduced as newcomers by their boss to the chicken sexing facility, where they first find work in Arkansas. When the entire family is asked to stand at church in response to the pastor’s welcome request, the film visually captures the sensation of drowning in a sea of gazes of people that look nothing like you.
In moments like this, Chung amplifies the uncomfortable distance and awkwardness felt by the family in physical spaces that visually isolates them from others in the room through his use of wide shots. While most of the film is shot in lower and medium angles, the quick change from close-ups to wide- and full-length shots is jarring, and mimics the loneliness of feeling like an outsider. The film also unpacks that the notion of racially-charged microaggressions, even said by children to other children, aren’t really micro at all, but are felt and experienced on a deeply painful level.
Emile Mosseri’s soundtrack beautifully immerses us along this journey. The music’s haunting refrains grow and transform into larger, more developed sounds to accompany the maturing saga on screen. Minari’s metaphorical grasp on the story is powerful and pays off. The fluctuating life of the vegetables that Jacob tries desperately to grow and sell mirrors the turbulent plight of the family. In a quite literal depiction of what it’s like to slowly watch your livelihood go up in flames, Minari’s third act solidifies Chung’s first-hand knowledge of a pain that, although never popularly recognized, ties Americans together.
Chung spoke about the internal moment that sparked his journey into recalling the events of his own childhood in Arkansas that eventually led to crafting the screenplay for Minari in a personal essay for the LA Times. In a coffee shop in Pasadena, Calif., Chung closed his eyes and listened to his inner voice, waiting and hoping for a spark of inspiration to come. What came were the words “Willa Cather,” author of My Antonia. Considered an American classic, Chung drew inspiration from this tale of a boy growing up on a rural farm, which was parallel to his own childhood. In an attempt to channel the authenticity of My Antonia into his film Minari, Chung followed Cather’s advice and relied on his memory as his guiding tool for this film. Chung said, “After writing 80 memories, I sketched a narrative arc with themes about family, failure, and rebirth. That’s how I got the idea to write Minari; it began for me; when I ceased to admire and began to remember.”
As we inch closer to the annual announcement of Oscar nominations, I strongly hope that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will recognize and honor the full scope and impact of Minari, free from bias limitations and judgements. During the context of a year that has seemed never-ending under the constraints of structural issues that have affected not only Americans, but our global community, Minari breathes life into the world of cinema — a necessary revival. Minari’s heart is as big as its technical beauty, both pleasing to the eye and healing for the spirit. Regardless of what the 2021 award show season will manifest, Minari’s long-lasting influence will flourish where it matters, in the hearts of audiences that can resonate with authentic and compassionate storytelling.
Planted with scenes that feel like memories and familial love that spans the course of generations, Minari blooms on screen, and emotionally plucks at our hearts. The American Dream can, at times, seem more mythical than a reachable goal, and Minari dives into the essence of this. What emerges is a wonderful film — discontent with the stale “success” narratives that saturate Hollywood — that explores a deeper and more meaningful level of the American experience made for audiences of all kinds, not solely the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. Minari delightfully forces us to expand our perspectives, recognize strength in resilience, and, most importantly, remember our roots.
Featured Photo: Courtesy of A24