The title references a resilient East Asian water plant used extensively in Korean cuisine. Here, it serves as a metaphor for the American Dream sought by a Korean immigrant family seeking a new life in Arkansas in the 1980s. But the path to achieve that dream leads to an emotional nightmare. Jacob, his wife Monica, their two kids, Ann and David, have travelled from California to a small Arkansas farm in the hopes of making their American dream come true.
A family drama becomes a family portrait as director Lee Isaac Chung layers his screen play with love, loss, hope, and regret. The narrative, shifting away from being just a formulaic heart softening mosaic, communicates a feeling of reality that invokes high and low naturalism.
Though the film is a made in America production and released by an independent studio, the dialogue is mainly Korean (fully covered by sub titles).
The viewer feels the family’s heartbreak working the land, struggling to tame the soil as apprentice farmers lacking the know-how. It’s like consulting Coles Notes and following the application contained therein. The family has an uphill undertaking financially triggering painful internal disputes. Monica is uneasy with Jacob’s bid to become a farmer and especially not happy they’re living in a mobile home in rural solitude.
There’s beauty in this film, but Chung baits viewers with expectations of dark anxieties, which don’t transpire, making real misfortune feel even more unexpected and heavy. This is a story showing a family making do with what is accessible to them. They’re learning on the go, reading, applying hands on gumption, and even horse sense to achieve success and happiness. It’s a matter of chasing dreams or having to settle for a practical, hard scrabble life.
Racial slurs, particularly directed toward Asian immigrants, are currently troubling society issues. “Minari” addresses the situation but Chung’s screenplay never allows it to cloak the story, giving the film a sense of realism. The family’s concern is with achieving the elusive American Dream, rather than deflecting racial ridicule.
The narrative agitates emotions with hefty performances from some of the supporting characters. The relationship between the grandmother, played by Esther Moon, and grandson David, flows naturally and is warmly engaging. The husband and wife pairing, though not overly romanticized, subtlety reflects a lasting love which plays with realism in engaging performances by Steven Yeun and Han Ye-Ri. Their son and daughter, played by Alan Kim and Noel Kate Cho, display acting chops that impress, especially as the two are novices appearing for the first time in a feature-length film.
There is poetic simplicity in director Lee Isaac Chung’s screenplay of faith and family which reaches the heart with emotional tugs and enriching humor.
Awards season is here, and “Minari” is in the Oscar race being nominated for Best picture, Best Director, Best actor, Best Supporting actress, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Score. In London, the film earned a win at the recent BAFTA (the British Oscar) awards presentation. Yuh-Jung Youn won for best-supporting actress for her role as the grandmother. Her acceptance speech was quite candid and had the social media fired up in saying, “every award is meaningful, but this one, especially recognized by British people, known as very snobbish people.” She later clarified that she was making an observation and not being judgmental.
With the current social assault on immigrant culture in the U.S., “Minari” seems deeply personal. There is a cost to the American Dream, and writer/director Chung’s film easily blends tones of the Asian-American experience in detailing the burdens carried by immigrants in a troubled land. Something not often played out on screen.