“Minari,” similar to the plant it’s named after, is a living, breathing piece of art. It’s the most autobiographical film of the year, a beautiful yet painful reiteration of Lee Isaac Chung’s childhood and his father’s pursuit of the American dream.
The film opens on its first character, the earth, with a wide shot of a sprawling green lawn that’s quickly treaded over by the Yi family station wagon and a moving van. The Yi’s, a Korean-American family led by Jacob (Steven Yeun) and mother Monica (Yeri Han), are looking to start anew in the heart of Arkansas with their two children, mature Anne (Noel Kate Cho) and six year old David (Alan S. Kim). They’ve spent the last five years sexing chickens (you read that right) in California and view the move as a journey towards self-sustainability. At least, that’s how Jacob sees it. He’s in love with his slice of the Ozark’s and decides to grow and sell Korean produce grown exclusively on his land. And in a way, this agricultural assimilation is symbolic of the Yi’s own struggle with independence.
The clashing of cultures is an ideal always present in immigrant stories and “Minari” is no different. Korean traditionalism is rooted in the Yi family, yet Jacob seems more drawn to the Western lifestyle, much to the chagrin of Monica. Jacob is a clear proponent of the American Dream. His red gimme cap and breast-pocketed cigarette pack indicate he sees himself less as an immigrant and more as the Korean Tom Joad. But Monica is the ever-present skeptic and fears for her and her family’s economic stability. Her own proclivity towards Korean sensibilities are outlined when her mother, Soonja (Yuh-Jung Youn), arrives from the motherland and Monica openly weeps when she brings Korean spices (and anchovies). This East-West, push-pull remains the body of the film, but the heart belongs to the Yi family dynamics.
In a 80 foot long tractor trailer, it’s hard to conceal angler. Not that Monica and Jacob try, they have it out with each other quite regularly in front of their children. But while Anne is fretful of her parents’ strife, David is too young to understand. Being only six, David quickly accepts his environment and sees the Ozarks as his own, personal playground. Him and Soonja have a shared love for the surrounding nature and it’s their relationship that sets “Minari” apart from other immigrant tales.
Chung’s direction shines when he’s exploring these interpersonal connections. His screenplay is among the best of the year; the dialogue in “Minari” is fantastic. And while he does over-saturate the film with atmospheric shots and a piano score that feels too haunting for the narrative, Chung always brings us back to the Yi family. His ability to capture the human experience through ordinary moments of intimacy is sublime, and reminiscent of Chloé Zhao’s “Nomadland.”
“Minari” is fundamentally a family drama and this movie doesn’t work without high-caliber performances. Luckily, the film has that, specifically from Steven Yuen and Yeri Han. Chemistry almost seems like the wrong word, because that’s not what their characters have. Maybe they did at one point, but in “Minari” it’s their friction that takes center stage and Yuen and Han do a phenomenal job of portraying the subtleties of a marriage on the rocks. Yes, their screaming matches might win them a Golden Globe. But it’s moments like when Jacob grabs his wife’s arm and says, “I’m going to take care of us,” that show each actor’s depth of charachter.
The supporting cast is also outstanding. Character actor Will Patton is once again fantastic as the Jesus loving farmhand who Jacob hires early in the film. Yuh-Jung Youn is also incredible, stealing every scene she’s in with hilarious moments of much-needed levity. .
“Minari” is a wonderful film. The emphasis on nature and the outside world feels bittersweet in the era of Zoom calls and masked conversations. But it’s ultimately uplifting, both in its story and for the promising careers of the people involved.