Depending on who you ask, American exceptionalism is either a source of tremendous soul-stirring pride, or crushing existential dread. The promise that anyone of any origin, with enough hard work and sacrifice, can make their greatest ambitions into a reality, helped transform a young nation into the most powerful on Earth. But how attainable is that much-vaunted “American Dream?” How far does hard work and sacrifice really take you?
Minari seeks answers through the story of Jacob Yi (Steven Yuen), an aspiring Korean farmer who moves his family to Arkansas so that he can achieve his dream and a better life for them. Jacob believes that Korean immigrants looking for comforts from the homeland will flock to his authentic produce, building a booming business that will far out-earn his current job at a chicken hatchery. His wife Monica (Yeri Han) is skeptical, and frustrated by how his pursuit is affecting their two young children Anne and David, putting their marriage in jeopardy. As if building a farm with little money, limited resources, and a crumbling family unit wasn’t difficult enough, Jacob’s mother-in-law Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung) arrives from Korea, her traditional sensibilities and vibrant personality clashing with David. As the seasons change and the crops grow and wither, the Yi family must persevere, because there really is no other option.
Even though most of the dialogue is in Korean, Minari is still a distinctly American film (despite what the Golden Globes might think). Written and directed by Lee Isaac Chung, the film is a startlingly pure distillation of the Middle American Dream, told through the eyes of immigrants, a dream where the work is never quite done and the struggle is near-constant. Based loosely on his childhood, Chung captures rural life in his film with an awe-filled lens, swallowing up his subjects in the vibrant greens and hazy atmosphere of the Yi farm. He lends significance and consequence to the most menial tasks, like a tractor digging up ground behind it, or washing up after a long day’s work. Chung’s direction is deferential, modest, but doesn’t deify the characters or their work. It would be easy to glamorize their grimy efforts, or pity their failures, and there are plenty of opportunities for both in the script. Instead, Chung presents the wins and losses plainly, all beholden to the whims of fate, chance, and timing.
Chung’s direction contrasts the Yi family themselves: they are aware of their circumstances and the limitations, but pride and tradition leave them unable to fully reconcile them. Jacob’s perceived delusions of grandeur are grounded in a firm knowledge of the stakes for him and his family, but he is also an optimistic, dignified man who has bought into his own ingenuity and work ethic being enough. That, sadly, is more than enough to lead him down risky paths. Steven Yuen does impressive work bringing those dueling sensibilities to life, channeling a bit of James Stewart’s George Bailey to convey both unwavering positivity and the bone-deep exhaustion that comes from lying to everyone, especially yourself, about the reality of a difficult situation.
While Jacob is technically Minari’s protagonist, Monica’s story is just as affecting. She has to support her husband’s dreams to salvage her marriage, maintain an unstable rural household in a land she doesn’t fully understand, and watch over two vulnerable family members, all without support from a community she can connect with. It’s an incredible burden that Monica can’t quite express to her husband, and Yeri Han perfectly captures how that tension and fear can curdle into the emotionally fraught confrontations that form the film’s most dramatically-rich moments. She and Yuen create a quietly heartbreaking portrait of a couple who, despite their shared goals, just can’t bridge the gulf of failed communication.
Minari lets some air in through the relationship between Soon-ja and her grandson David. He initially resents her because she isn’t like a “regular grandma,” meaning that she can’t bake cookies, she sleeps on the floor of his room, and she is a standing monument to a life and culture he doesn’t understand having grown up in America. Soon-ja loves her grandson despite his rebuffs, and the two build a cantankerous-turned-loving bond. Youn Yuh-jung is an absolute delight, almost walking away with the film from the second she arrives on the Yi’s elevated doorstep. While she provides some fun and humor to level out the agricultural and marital strife, Yuh-jung takes a hairpin turn in Soon-ja’s health and leaves you wrecked, especially when you look into her eyes.
The two central relationships of Minari – Soon-ja and David and Jacob and Monica – are equally compelling, but the film doesn’t strike the easiest balance between them, sometimes giving neither the space to fully breathe. The same goes for the Yi family’s space in the world around them. Minari is incredibly specific and intimate, and all the lovelier for it. However, the film doesn’t fully dig into the roles that class or race may play into their lives, especially amongst the Arkansas townspeople. Religion is a key theme throughout the film, but it’s not clear where the family’s faith – especially Monica’s – comes from, whether it’s carried over from their lives in Korea, or if it’s American made. While it certainly doesn’t detract from the film, it does feel like a missed opportunity to draw clearer connections between the family’s experiences and themes that are especially resonant today.
Minari is an unassuming and tender film that appreciates, but doesn’t glorify, the effort required to reach for success in America. Vividly rendered and intimately crafted, it lays bares the intrinsic guardrails of the system that brought millions to the country without victimizing or pitying those banging up against them. Minari doesn’t demand a retraction of the myth, but it does suggest a future where maybe the Dream won’t be deferred, as long as you’re willing to try.