Review: One family’s American dream gives “Minari” its heart

Review: "Minari": A family's pursuit of the American dream

Lee Isaac Chung’s semi-autobiographical film tells a story about love and humanity in the face of failure, painting an authentic picture of immigrant life in America.
Published: March 8, 2021

David Yi (Alan S. Kim) and his grandma Soon-ja (Yuh-Jung Youn) begin to bond after a drawer-related injury in a clip from "Minari."

“I’ll take care of us. Coming to this ‘hillbilly place’ was for our family.”

In Lee Isaac Chung’s semi-autobiographical film Minari, the titular hardy Korean herb offers a simple, yet beautiful, metaphor for the Yi family as they survive the plight many immigrant families face when searching for the American dream.

Jacob Yi (Steven Yeun) hopes to make a life for himself and his family by harvesting Korean vegetables on a plot of land in the middle of the Ozarks, while his wife Monica (Yeri Han) suffers as she feels uprooted from their old life in California. But when Grandma Soonja (Yuh-Jung Youn) arrives from Korea, the family’s world really begins to change as they try replanting their roots in Arkansan soil — “the best dirt in America.”

Told from the perspective of seven-year-old David (played by Alan S. Kim), Minari recalls the celebrated works of Flannery O’Connor and John Steinbeck, following an ordinary family that just happens to be Korean.

The film explores the hunt for salvation through blood, sweat and tears. The family farm is Jacob’s beacon of hope, the potential to grow his own Garden of Eden and start life anew with his family in America after a decade of struggles. Yet, his dreams for the farm are constantly extinguished via drought, flame and other quasi-divine interventions.

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Paul (Will Patton) and Jacob (Steven Yeun) try to get water from a dry well to keep the farm — Jacob’s American dream — thriving.

Neighbor and farmhand Paul (Will Patton) is a devout Pentecostal, carrying a cross with him each Sunday and speaking in tongues. The Yi family is key to his search for deliverance, but through his mutually beneficial partnership with Jacob, he offers an optimistic view of the world and supports the farmer’s blind commitment to actualizing his American dream.

The cast anchors the tender film with genuine, gut-wrenching performances. Jacob, brimming with fierce desperation, just wants to provide a better life for his family.

“They need to see me succeed at something for once,” he says to his wife.

Yeun brings tenacity to his portrayal of the family man, Jacob. His aching heart is present throughout the film as he puts everything aside — even family — in pursuit of his goals. It’s this heart that gives the audience a reason to root for Jacob’s success, a character that could otherwise be unlikeable in the hands of another actor.

Han, in her American film debut, steers Monica through emotional highs and lows with meticulous care. Shortly after her mother’s arrival, she begins crying over her simple gift of anchovies and gochugaru, or Korean chilli peppers. These reminders of home cause her emotions to bubble up to the surface. This scene gives a brief glimpse into her character’s inner turmoil before Monica locks it away once more. She becomes the glue holding the Yis together, shouldering life’s emotional burdens and becoming a quicker chicken sexer (someone who distinguishing the sex of chickens and other hatchlings) to continue providing for her family, as Jacob begins choosing the farm over his family.

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The Yi family (L-R Steven Yeun, Alan S. Kim, Yuh-Jung Youn, Yeri Han, Noel Kate Cho) finds connection and salvation on their Ozark farm.

Newcomers Kim and Noel Kate Cho are perfectly paired as siblings David and Anne Yi. The boy’s devilish side is on full display as Cho tries her best to keep her little brother in line.

Chung explores both the assimilation of immigrant children into American society and their bond with their own ancestries through the troublesome David, the boy feeling the least connected to his culture than the rest of the family. He complains about Soonja’s “Korea smell” and shouts she’s “not a real grandma” with the brutal honesty of a child. But after a series of spats, the two grow close and David becomes more comfortable with his grandmother and his Korean roots, sharing Soonja’s favorite card game and swears with his friend Johnnie during a sleepover.

Emile Mosseri’s stunning score and the accompanying soundtrack of frog croaks transport viewers back to a childhood they may have forgotten, with the familiarity and warmth of every note strengthening each scene. Lachlan Milne’s dreamy cinematography and color palette recall the haziness of treasured memories, each frame full of fresh greens and bright yellows.

Chung uses the film’s 115-minute runtime to tell a story about love and humanity in the face of failure, painting an authentic picture of immigrant life in America. As Soonja says, “Minari is wonderful, wonderful!”