“Honest to its authenticity as an American story.”
Flush in the heat of a childhood summer, Lee Isaac Chung makes himself comfortable in the home that is his fourth feature film, Minari. As a Korean family winds their way down an unmarked Arkansan road, either in the front seat of a moving van fulfilling some makeshift destiny or in the rear seat of a rickety station wagon being forced to follow, one has to wonder where he is taking them, and indirectly us, at the beginning of this film. The destination is clear within a few minutes: a nondescript house on wheels. Once the characters are escorted through its stepless threshold, it is evident that he intends to let us into his head and settle us down in its stillness.
A partial autobiography about Chung’s particular immigrant story, Minari follows the tale of the Yi family as they attempt to define the American Dream in a different language. At the head of the household are Jacob (Steven Yeun) and Monica (Han Ye-ri), a father and a mother finding themselves chasing after an aspiration that only one of them has. That is, to start a peaceful farm, miles away from the hearts of civilizations and with enough acres to spare so that it can no longer be candidly classified as “a hobby.” Tagging along with them are their children, Anne (Noel Cho) and David (Alan S. Kim), first-generation kids speaking in a half-Korean, half-English tongue, and later on, Monica’s mother, Soonja (Youn Yuh-jung).
They do not appear as the standard nuclear family that the nation has a tendency to demand. No, they look like a reflection of another kind. With siblings not so far apart in age yet certainly in height and a grandmother as sage as every wrinkle in her skin states, they are an immigrant family at their finest. This especially shows through as they come to a head. David, a kind kid rapidly trying to intelligently understand the world, doesn’t know what to do when Soonja, a flame-stoking individual as fluent in obscenities just as much as she is in Korean, is suddenly a permanent presence in his life. As if on instinct, he rejects his grandmother, who is not at all the stereotypical one he is accustomed to. There is a guilty relatability to him that stings and lingers, but the conflict of culture is so important to telling this story genuinely.
What Minari stays honest to is its authenticity as an American story. Many will compare the movie to The Farewell, and honestly, as reluctant as the agreement is, there is a point to that. Where people go wrong, though, is trying to draw distinct similarities between the two of them when, in fact, the differences are what count. In stark contrast to how Lulu Wang’s directorial debut comes to its home country (of China, it’s worth noting, not Korea, as critics not of color try to sound distinguished as they name the only other recent Asian-centric cinematic masterpiece they can recall that isn’t Parasite), Minari remains in the region that some Asian-Americans were born and bred in. The middle of nowhere.
The latter half of that ethnicity is often lost in stories. There is a tendril in the narrative that centers itself so narrowly on the idea of identity instead. That isn’t to discredit them. They are needed more than anything. Rather than seed the movie with representation that is so desperately sought out, though, Minari grows that on its own naturally. The characters exist not as tokens to sustain the industry. They only exist. With the recent announcement that the cast is campaigning for awards alongside the movie, this means everything.
Like the herb that it gets its namesake from, this movie thrives where its roots take unbudging hold. Loving in a loud way, caring in a tenacious sense, fulfilling in its true-to-life form: it is a father excusing himself to go check on his garden in the aftermath of a fight, it is a mother carefully scraping earwax off the soft flesh of her son’s skin, it is a grandmother stowing away organic Korean goods for her family to partake.
Someone once said that “work is an act of love.” Minari is a holed heart palpitating proof of that.
Director: Lee Isaac Chung
Producers: Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Christina Oh
Cast: Steven Yeun, Han Ye-ri, Youn Yuh-jung, Alan S. Kim, Noel Cho, Will Patton, Scott Haze, Darryl Cox, Esther Moon
Header image courtesy of Sundance Institute.