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“Minari” is a modest American tale universal in tenderness

Writer-director Lee Isaac Chung’s semi-autobiography depicts his childhood in rural Arkansas

“Minari” opens with the American heartland flitting past the inquisitive faces of 6-year-old David (newcomer Alan S. Kim) and his older sister, Anne (Noel Kate Cho). The young boy eventually dozes off, but the mother, Monica (Yeri Han), wears an expression of growing unease as she drives the beat-up vehicle down dirt roads. Finally, she parks on an overgrown meadow, where a shabby trailer sits atop cinder blocks. 

“What is this place?” Monica asks her husband Jacob (Steven Yeun) who hops out of the rented moving truck parked in front of her. 

“Our home,” Jacob answers. A gleam of hope and excitement dances in his eyes, while Monica’s searching gaze darkens with disappointment and worry. 

Jacob, the headstrong patriarch, has uprooted the Korean-American Yi family from California, where the couple previously worked as chicken sexers, and moved them to rural  Arkansas. While Jacob optimistically plans to start a small-scale farm growing Korean vegetables, Monica, more accustomed to urban life, is dubious of the practicality of her husband’s costly enterprise. 

The carefree children, on the other hand, find the trailer’s wheeled mobile structure impressive. “David, look!” Anne cries excitedly, “It’s like a big car.” 

From Plan B and A24, “Minari” is loosely based on writer and director Lee Isaac Chung’s childhood on sprawling farmland near the Ozarks in the 1980s. In some ways, his story is a classic snapshot of the pursuit of the American Dream — a married immigrant couple leaving the ravages of the Korean War in search of change and opportunity across the Pacific. But, in other ways, the nuanced film is much more than that: a portrait of a more realistic American Dream, often elusive, lackluster and grueling. 

Frustration and anger between the couple arise with Jacob hoping to prove himself by becoming a successful farmer and Monica wishing her husband could give up his idyllic “Garden of Eden” vision in consideration of their children’s predicament: social isolation and David’s heart condition. At the peak of these biding marital tensions, Monica’s mother (Yuh-Jung Youn) arrives from South Korea to lend a hand. 

Grandma Soonja is a welcoming jolt of lighthearted, unreserved humor and wisdom that assuages the weariness of the struggling family. The film gradually evolves, becoming an intergenerational family drama that sincerely depicts a budding grandma-grandson relationship and inevitable clashes between either side of a widening cultural gap. 

At the height of his craft, Chung carefully avoids the trite realm of melodrama through the recollection of indelible personal moments etched in his preschool memory. He constructs sun-drenched vignettes against verdant green backdrops, capturing still shots of sweltering summer nights as bittersweet Korean ballads play in the background from a nostalgic boxy television set. 

It becomes evident that as Chung looks back on his boyhood as both a director and an adult, he also begins to ruminate on the losses and gains precipitated by his parents’ choices. 

In one scene, David is surprised when Grandma recalls that the Korean song performed on television was a relic of his parents’ romantic past. “They come to America and forget everything,” Grandma Soonja says. Though the couple does not respond, suppressed emotions flicker across Monica’s face. 

In their somber dinner silence, questions are left hovering in the heavy air: Would they have been happier if they didn’t sacrifice their Korean past for an American future? Are they living a better life in America, as they had promised each other they would? 

Still, regardless of residual doubt and hardship, the consequential choice to immigrate was made. Born and raised in America, David and Anne are just as American as the Mountain Dew they guzzle. When Monica asks David to share a bedroom with Grandma, the boy refuses, complaining in English that Grandma has a “Korean smell.” When Grandma affectionately calls her grandson a “pretty boy” with her exceedingly limited English diction, David snaps back, “I’m not pretty. I’m good-looking!” 

Across the generational gulf, there remains a thin bridge of communication that the two bilingual children are reluctant to cross, willfully criticizing in fluent English their grandmother who remains just a few feet behind them. But the wisecracking Soonja doesn’t mind. Instead, she finds hobbies and chores to keep herself occupied, one being planting minari, or Korean watercress (a vegetable side dish popular in Southeast Asia). Patiently, Soonja strengthens the bond with her grandchildren. 

Throughout “Minari,” the entire cast captivates with meticulous, profound performances. Yeun, who previously starred in the acclaimed noir thriller “Burning,” dazzles as Jacob, the stoic father figure whose hard toil for the family is silently carried out from daybreak to supper. Han shines too, subtly betraying the emotional conflict that slowly chipped away the confidence she once possessed for her husband. 

But, Youn’s performance is undoubtedly the most poignant in the film. The seasoned South Korean actress, who starred in the revered “The Bacchus Lady,” sparkles with caustic wit and warmth. Her lively dynamic with rising star, Kim, is one that is both hilarious and rich with universal tenderness. 

By the end of the film, the resilience of minari, the distinctly Korean vegetable, resonates with a deeper metaphoric meaning. Minari comes to represent the tenacious immigrant spirit. As it thrives along a forest brook near the family trailer, David and his father return to the vibrant outgrowth Grandma Soonja has planted. The minari will continue to grow, interweaving Korean roots with the American land the family now calls home. 



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