Minari is about a Korean immigrant family, but its genuine voice magnifies a modest story about change, hope, and resilience that’s relatable for anyone.
Writer and director Lee Isaac Chung is able to compose a story that’s deceptively gentle yet inspiring. The nuanced script focuses on the interactions of the tight-knit family. As a result, Minari is a detailed immigrant drama with universal truths.
The Yi family juggles their roles within the family, their ties to a diasporic community, and fitting into a community they’re beholden to.
Jacob (Steven Yeun) thinks he is above the locals, yet he’s buying into the American Dream with go for broke ambitions. Monica (Han Ye-ri) prefers a stable life, but this comes with costly compromises. Things get complicated with the arrival of her mother (Youn Yuh-jung), who stands as a reminder of a world they have left as they try to fit in with a new one. David (Alan Kim) complains that she “smells like Korea” but what he really doesn’t like is she’s not the American kind of grandma.
Youn Yuh-jung stands out from an already strong cast. Soon-ja is a loving grandmother who gambles, curses, and watches wrestling. She has no problem being uprooted and adjusting to a new environment, while tensions within the family grow into a fever pitch.
Yet Minari isn’t a bleak nor schmaltzy drama. The plot unfolds quietly and methodically. Even if you’re not an Asian, you can’t help but root for the Yi’s success.
Cinematography embraces its lush rural setting to convey the resilience of its characters and the possibilities they can achieve within this vast open landscape.
Chung seems to be drawing from memory – the movie is partly based on his upbringing – infusing humor and tenderness to the story. In one scene, Soon-ja comforts her grandson who can’t sleep because he’s worried he’ll actually go to heaven after praying.
It’s easy to see this as a coming-of-age tale for David. But this is only a part of a still-surfaced yet layered story. Minari is about the American dream from a Korean immigrant family’s perspective.
It’s a clash between ambition and practicality, individuality and assimilation. Jacob is hellbent on being a homesteading pioneer, even at the cost of severing ties with his own community. On top of this lonely and arduous endeavor, his family also have to weather non-malicious but constant microaggressions, which remind them that they need to achieve a certain kind of Americanness to fit in.
There is no easy answer to this and Minari truthfully tells you it doesn’t have either. The movie ends on a bittersweet note instead. A loss can unite a family to persevere and move forward.
Minari is a small, honest, and gentle immigrant drama about family, identity, and assimilation with grand resonant truths.