There’s a really overt metaphor in Minari about placing roots in American soil. After spending a decade in California making a living through chicken sexing, Jacob Yi (Steven Yeun), the patriarch of a multigenerational Korean American immigrant family, moves everyone to a farm in Arkansas, and stakes his livelihood — and marriage — on the American Dream. He believes in the unseen water in the land, using it to plant rows of Korean vegetables, exclaiming, “This is the best dirt in America!”
So there’s more than Jacob’s pride on the line. On their first night in their new life, a tornado warning threatens to pull their trailer home off its wheels, which terrifies his wife Monica (Han Ye-ri), who’s upset about uprooting their lives from California. Very quickly, a shouting match between the two outscreams the storm outside. “I worked for ten years. Ten years staring at chicken butts all day,” Jacob yells. “Working myself to the bone.” The kids, David (Alan Kim) and Anne (Noel Kate Cho), send them paper airplanes from another room, with “don’t fight” written on their wings in crayon. Monica eventually yields, putting her trust in her husband’s ambition.
Unfortunately, trust is both powerful and inadequate — there has to be some sort of return in order to make that faith last, and if there isn’t, the fallout is even more devastating. That’s the tension that director Lee Isaac Chung skillfully uses in this immigrant drama, which was inspired by his own childhood experiences growing up on a rural farm in Arkansas. In Minari, tragedy keeps befalling the Yis, every time their luck seems to be turning around. Jacob puts his faith in the land, but then their underground well runs out. Monica puts her faith in Jacob, but he repeatedly prioritizes the farm over their family, even preventing them from having running water in an attempt to save his vegetables. This could have become a tiresome pattern of “give and take,” but instead, Minari’s careful, natural pacing renders each moment of loss sharply.
Perhaps, the best example of this is Soon-ja’s relationship with David. Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung) is David’s maternal grandmother, whom Monica invites in hopes that she can watch over the kids, while Monica watches over her elderly mother. But David quickly rejects Soon-ja for not being like stereotypical grandmothers, as she’s more likely to watch wrestling matches, “borrow” money from their local church’s collection basket, or tease David for his bedwetting problem, than she is to bake cookies. The bulk of the story is devoted to watching this tenuous friendship bloom. When David finally learns to trust his grandmother, it’s a well-earned moment of relief for Minari. But, since things were getting too good for the Yis, that budding camaraderie is lost when Soon-ja has a stroke, and family tensions arise again. In a painful moment, David naively blames his parents’ arguments on Soon-ja. He whispers to her that it’s all her fault as she lies motionlessly in his bed.
It’s all too much for Monica, who has done everything she can — from conducting an exorcism to heal her mother to pretending she isn’t aware of Jacob’s water-theft — because she believes in the people around her. Or, believed. “We can’t save each other, but money can? Things might be fine now, but I don’t think they’ll stay that way,” Monica tells Jacob. “I’ve lost my faith in you.” That’s moments before the movie reaches its fever pitch, when another catastrophe seems to be the death knell for Jacob’s American Dream.
Movies about making it on “the frontier” tend to be overly romantic or nostalgic, and Minari almost falls into that cliche with its dreamy, piano-heavy score, and sunlit shots of open fields. But Minari resists any easy categorizations of struggle and victory with its rollercoaster plot, contrary to the way the film has been marketed as an inspirational tale about the American Dream, a triumph for “the nation of immigrants.” It’s probably because those labels can be problematic — Chung acknowledged it himself. “I think we just have to be mindful of what that definition of an American dream is. I think we are faced with a lot of definitions of that that are, frankly, unhealthy,” he said in an interview with Deadline. “I feel we see them crumbling right now in this country, letting people down in a way.” Those promises fail because hard work is not the only prerequisite to success, as Minari shows. Even the picture of “a nation of immigrants,” for all its good intentions, can be harmful, ignoring the country’s violent history as a settler-colony.
So Minari is a uniquely American tale, as many have dubbed it, but not necessarily for feel-good reasons. Instead of presenting a flat portrait of sparkling multiculturalism, Minari finds the ways in which faith — in the American Dream, in each other — can be both alluring and disappointing.
That’s not to say that Minari is a doom and gloom story. All things considered, it’s actually fairly optimistic, relying on moments of joy and levity for its spirit. So much of this is thanks to the life Yeun, Han, and Youn, bring to their roles. It’s clear that each understands their character: Youn embodies the role of the eccentric grandmother lovingly, Yeun complicates Jacob’s toxic masculinity with a clear yearning to be a hero for his family, and Han translates the grief and tension of Monica’s experiences into wrought expressions and wrinkled brows.
But a lot of this is also owed to the balancing act Chung draws in the highs and lows the characters go through. Of course, there’s anger and failure and regret — a happy-go-lucky movie is hardly interesting. But there’s a reason why Jacob invests everything in a tractor and field, or why Monica chooses to look the other way when Jacob switches the water lines. Faith is hope, and hope prevails — it’s just a question of who or what you should believe in.
Watch Minari on demand starting Feb. 26, or catch a screening with Fort Mason Flix and the Roxie Theater on March 2.