“Minari” (with limited theatrical release on February 12th and on demand February 26th) explores the quintessential American dream from the perspective of a Korean-American family. A labor of love from writer-director, Lee Isaac Chung, the film celebrates family life amidst the struggle of the immigrant experience. Loosely autobiographical, Chung remembers the feelings he had when his own father moved their family to Arkansas in the 1980’s. He expertly takes his own experience and makes it universal in this gentle story of a father (Steven Yeun) who just wants his children see him succeed.
7-year-old David Yi (Alan Kim), his older sister, Anne (Noel Cho), and his mom, Monica (Yeri Han), have all been moved from their home in California to rural Arkansas by David’s dad, Jacob (Yeun). When David sees their new home, he’s fascinated by its wheels but Monica’s none too pleased. The mobile home, propped up on cinder blocks, looks like it dropped out of a tornado into the middle of nowhere. There is, however, plenty of land for the “big garden,” as Jacob describes his dream farm to David.
Alan Kim and Steven Yeun in "Minari." © 2021 A24. All Rights Reserved.
Monica’s displeasure is justified as their new home is nowhere near a hospital. David has a heart murmur and needs regular medical attention. But since the chicken hatchery, where both Jacob and Monica have steady employment as chicken sexers (determining if thousands of chicks are male or female), is nearby, the house will have to do. The tedious work and the money Jacob spends on his farm, leaves husband and wife bickering about everything, so much so that David and Anne send paper airplanes with “don’tfight” written on them soaring into the midst of the parental battles.
David tags along with his dad as Jacob, together with eccentric, Pentecostal farm hand, Paul (Will Patton), works on weekends to grow Korean vegetables for sale in ethnic markets. When Monica and Jacob realize they need help looking after the children, Soonja (Yuh-Jung Youn), Monica’s mother, comes from Korea to live with the Yis’. David is not thrilled. She sleeps in his room and “smells like Korea.” David is sure she’s not a real grandma because she swears and doesn’t bake cookies like other grandmas. When she forces him to drink an unfamiliar mixture she’s brought with her from the homeland, he turns right around and gives her an even worse drink, in true little boy fashion.
The Yi family as portrayed in “Minari.” © 2021 A24. All Rights Reserved.
The film’s title comes from a Korean herb that is an ingredient in much Korean cooking. As Soonja and David warm up to each other, she takes him to a creek bed she’s found to plant the seeds. Grandma Soonja tells David that minari grows well and is available to all, rich or poor, to pick and eat.
Newcomer to the screen, Alan Kim as David, plays this genuine boy with wonder and innocence if not the emotional range of a more experienced actor. Still, in one of the best running scenes since Forrest Gump, Kim manages to capture David’s inner drive. Steven Yeun, best known for his role in “The Walking Dead,” gives Jacob the right mixture of stubbornness, determination, and gentleness with a simple pathos that’s shot through with fierce passion and conviction.
The strength of “Minari,” a favorite of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, comes with its portrayal of the universal struggles of marriage, parenting, and family life without being overly dramatic. The Korean-American Yi family could represent any of us as we each work to fulfill our version of family and the American dream.
Yeri Han as Monica and Steven Yeun as Jacob in “Minari." © 2021 A24. All Rights Reserved.
Pope Francis, in his 2013 document on evangelization, Evangelii Gaudium, has this to say about the struggles of family life: “The weakening of [family] bonds is particularly serious because the family is the fundamental cell of society where we learn to live with others despite our differences and to belong to one another; it is also the place where parents pass on the faith to their children” (no. 66).
“Minari” celebrates a real family, where the struggle to live with others despite their differences, is lived out with suffering and heartache, but also with self-giving, forgiveness, and grace.
This review was adapted with permission from Catholic New Service.