This Thanksgiving happens to fall in a complex time in American history. We’ve just had a hotly contested, emotional Presidential election that proves that we are, in fact, more divided than ever, and that those who don’t share our exact views are vicious and evil. As is always the case during times like these, we look to art for answers, and to reflect on who we are and what we want to be. That’s why films like Minari are so lovable, so wonderful, and so important. It reflects on the honest, earnest truths about who we are – a nation of immigrants who dreamed of a better life for our children – and where we would like to be. And much in the same way that Elia Kazan’s America, America once reflected on the ups and downs of the immigrant experience in the days of yore, so too does Lee Isaac Chung’s moving semi-autobiography show us the America often hidden in the Big Picture of national politics, and the America we all so desperately want to be again.
In the mid-1980s, the Yi family picks up roots from their L.A. home to buy a farm in the middle of Arkansas. Mother Monica (Han Ye-ri) is skeptical of the expenditure, as their lack of experience and massive investments threaten to bring the family to ruin. But father Jacob (Steven Yeun) is determined to make it work – due to their son David’s (Alan Kim) heart condition and mounting medical bills, the only way the family has any chance of escaping debt and living comfortably is to take a big risk. Living in a consensed trailer on their newly inhabited land, the Yi family begins settling in, meeting neighbors, struggling to run the farm, and eventually taking care of the family matriarch Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung), a feisty, foul-mouthed older woman who seems just as comfortable pranking her grandchildren as she is giving them life lessons.
At its core, Minari is a sweeping, open exploration of the American Dream, and its connection to the immigrant experience. It invites into the daily lives of this family for two hours, and lets us live in their experiences. Early glimpses of Jacob’s mindset, as an immigrant and as an individual, when he teaches his son about the burning of the male chickens in the plant they work at. “Male chickens have no use,” he explains. “So you and I should try to be useful.” The metaphor shows us the experiences Jacob faces as a stranger in a strange land, trying to work his ass off just to be able to provide for his family and pay his son’s medical bills. As it turns out, for Jacob and the immigrant experience at large, the more apt metaphor may be the town legend that the farm land the Yis bought may, in fact, be cursed (the previous owner shot himself, it’s explained). The film shows the ins and outs of the immigrant experience, and trying to make the most out of the hand life has dealt you. It’s a system that’s stacked against you, where you must start entirely from scratch, trapped in a relentless cycle, and constantly feel like an outsider in your own community – even if the all-white neighbors are helpful, albeit relatively ignorant. Minari is about capturing the unyielding perseverance that must go into the immigrant experience, and the challenges it entails even without the usual genre clichés of racism and sadness/poverty porn.
And yet, despite the odds stacked against them, and the ever-mounting sense of disaster, Chung’s screenplay and careful direction, Minari is ultimately an optimistic film. Like Troell’s legendary films about the harsh realities of immigration, filled with death and tragedy at every turn, it still promises a vision of a better life for your descendants, and a society that, whilst never understanding you, is willing to help at all costs. Jacob’s optimism – and the ultimate chance at success – can be found from the jump, when he shows his family a clump of dirt from their new land and exclaims “This is the best dirt in America!” He is the ultimate representation of the immigrant spirit, willing to stubbornly pursue his dreams and lose everything rather than work as a slave until he dies. The film provides stunning montage after stunning montage of the hard work Jacob and his hired hand Paul (Will Patton) putting in the back-breaking work to transform the acres of potential into a true paradise, and the mobile house into a home. And speaking of people like Paul, one of the most uplifting elements of the film is the way the Yis are incorporated into the town’s faith and community. Oh, don’t get me wrong, the inhabitants of Arkansas are certainly ignorant – their shock at the arrival of the Asian Yis results in many a well-meaning, but ultimately bigoted question for the new patrons. But they are still willing to extend a helping hand, even if skeptically, to their neighbors. It offers up not only an optimistic view of the American spirit, but sets up an unforced, earnest demonstration of the America we want to be – where despite our flaws and our shortcomings, we’d still be willing to help someone different from ourselves, embrace a new culture, and prove that we are able to grow as a society.
My favorite moments from the film are Chung’s inner looks at the family’s inner life, and the specific details that give this film a sense of memory. For example, there is a hyperspecificity in David’s obsession with Mountain Dew, or Jacob’s infamous stick hanging over the door which he uses as a threat of corporal punishment for his children, but which he would never use. One of the cutest, most honest moments in the film comes when David and his sister Anne (Noel Kate Cho) make paper airplanes while their parents have an all-out argument labeled “Don’t Fight.” And then there’s the characterization of Soon-ja, Monica’s mother who moves in with the family not long into the film’s runtime. Soon-ja is such a specific character, portraying a foul-mouthed spunky grandmother with more originality and care than a certain similar character appearing on Netflix this week. While I enjoyed her bits of grandmotherly wisdom like “Start them [playing cards] young so they can beat those other bastards,” one of the best elements of the film involves her humorous back-and-forth with David once they’re forced to share a room. I suppose a more high-brow critic would comment on the clear, precise commentary of watching the two fall in love amidst the pranks while a young boy learns to literally accept the two cultures that made him. But me? I’m just here to watch a grandmother nickname her bedwetting grandson “Penis Broken” while the grandson replaces her Mountain Dew with…you know what? I’m not going to spoil it. I’ll just conclude that this is a good, warm-hearted movie, and it’s a sign of Chung’s screenwriting abilities that it feels this lively.
I also want to make it clear that beyond great acting, writing, and staging, Chung’s vision expands to every aspect of the filmmaking and design. One aspect I cannot stress enough is Lachlan Milne’s gorgeous cinematography, which ranges from wide panoramics of fields to sumptuous overheads of Jacob plowing the fields to make a life for his family. It’s also worth noting that the climax features some of the most stunning visuals of the year, I just don’t want to spoil them now. The score, composed by relative newcomer Emile Mosseri (the mind behind last year’s impeccable Last Black Man In San Francisco music), consists of simple, yet effective piano strains, not unlike the film’s own simplistic beauty. And editor Harry Yoon manages to structure the film in the most efficient ways possible. Thanks to his understanding of Chung’s screenplay and direction, he manages to bring every frame to life in a human, honest way. Even the ending, which consists of a series of relatively clichéd and predictable story beats, still manages to feel earned and unique thanks to Yoon’s careful structuring of the material. Minari is some of the year’s best filmmaking, and it’s not even close.
In terms of the performances, everyone across the board is bringing their A-game. Much of the coverage thus far has focused on Yeun’s loving, passionate dad, and I don’t think that praise is unearned. Yeun gives a terrifically understated performance as a man stoically trying to provide for his family, and he makes for one of cinema’s more memorable and relatable father figures. I also believe Yeun is aided by Han Ye-Ri, who portrays Monica so lovingly and intelligently that her sparring matches – in both love and anger – push Yeun to up his own game as a result. The heart of the film, and arguably the two best performances, comes from the young Alan Kim and the elderly Youn Yuh-jung. The two have excellent chemistry that makes their journey the most compelling arc, and any moment they had, from childlike innocence to the playful mischief of a matriarch, elevates the ensemble as a whole. I don’t want to leave out Noel Kate Cho, who is an effective member of the family and certainly feels real and honest – it’s just that Anne doesn’t resonate the same way due to the limitations of the screenplay. And as one of the film’s few white characters, Patton is an eccentric, effective, empathetic performer throughout, even if his character is slightly difficult to read.
Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari is a powerful tribute to the immigrants who built this country, and a terrific family drama to boot. Obviously the most obvious moral comes from Soon-ja’s explanation of “minari” (a celery-like weed with medicinal benefits) – and metaphorically the journey of immigrants – for her grandson: “Rich or poor, anyone can enjoy it and be healthy. Minari is wonderful!” But the message I most take away is a subtle shot at the end of the film, where the family curls up on the floor of their mobile home, sleeping as a family. Life is full of ups and downs, and time may be nothing but a flat circle. But at the end of the day, family is what helps us survive; it pushes us forward and inspires us to make this world as great as it can be despite the odds. And that’s why I find Minari so beautiful, so inspiring, and so expertly made.
Minari will have a limited release on December 11th before a nationwide release on February 12th, 2021