The American Dream. A phrase likely recognised the world over, and likely representing different things to different people. Countless films have treated those 3 words with the broadest canvas possible, tackling it from viewpoints both positive, negative and more often than not somewhere in-between. But what of the immigrants who venture to those American shores driven by the promise of that dream, and likely also driven by some of those myriad filmic depictions? How does the promise reveal itself to those who have to remove themselves from home and country, in the faint prospect that life will be better? Minari seeks to answer that without large histrionics or generic platitudes, rather honing in on the micro effects it can take on one small family. The results are nothing short of beautiful.
Minari (a Korean word for edible plant) frames it from the perspective of the Yi family, Korean-Americans who have already spent a great deal of time in California. Carving out what appears to have been a modest yet repetitive existence (the Yi parents efficiently adept at the menial task of chicken sexing a sign of this). Patriarch Jacob, a subtle and touching Steven Yeun, keen to grab hold of what was initially promised and head to rural Arkansas, set up shop on a bit of land and farm Korean vegetables. Less keen is wife Monica (Han Ye-Ri) who sees isolating themselves in the fields near Dallas, subsequently living in an immobile motor home, as both financially risky and physically risky (their son David has a heart condition that could require medical attention at a moments notice). A disagreement that frequently leads to tension and arguments between the pair. Director Lee Issac-Chung is smart here though because although it appears this story will largely be told from the adults POV, he changes tact and anchors most of Minari through the eyes of young David. Alan S Kim is revelatory as the precocious youngster, often confused by that around him resulting in his brutally honest outbursts. Kim is so lived in, so believable that you follow him every step of the way, feeling as he feels.
The opening act is gently unassuming in its plot momentum, happy to linger in the always captivating visuals draped in lustrous light through cinematographer Lachlan Milne’s observant eye. Jacob struggling to put the farm together, whilst battling Monica’s understandable concerns. Help is at hand from local man Paul. A rough hewn, religiously driven individual who both entertains and confuses Jacob with his frequent calls to God. Will Patton finding the empathetic humanity beneath what other films may have used as antagonist behaviour. Paul is never hinted as a threat (Chung has mentioned in interviews that in some test screenings audiences expected Paul to be a villain) rather a clever representation of how Jacob’s place within America is not that different from those born there. Paul’s oddball nature and standing in the community (kids around take the mickey at his weekly cross carrying pilgrimages) showcase that there are always those who will consider us an outsider to established norms. No matter what from that may take. In Paul, Jacob sees an almost kindred spirit. Minari is smarter still by never looking at the immigrant perspective through the restrictive familiar lens of race. Outside of an interaction between David and a local boy who questions why his face is different, one born out of ignorance more than racist ideology, the Yi’s Korean heritage is never portrayed as the driving force for tension. Of course no story about immigrants in America can skirt over the very fabric of what it means to be an outsider in a different country, but Minari speaks to this displacement through our natural inclination to feel out of place in new surroundings, just by their very nature of being away from home. A scene in their local church as they’re made to stand up and introduce themselves isn’t framed through suspicious looks or racial tensions (the minister notes what a “beautiful” family they are), but the awkwardness that comes from being a stranger in a strange land. Chung isn’t interested in tackling long buried hatred, he simply wishes to watch people exist within their own individual struggles.
Instead most of the tension is exacerbated through the arrival of Minari’s beating heart. Grandma Soonja. Flown in to help Monica settle in this new life, and maybe ease the burden of arguments that lay on the couple, Soonja is a force of nature. A figure to represent that past life, that past culture, and a reminder that the “American Dream” is not a replacement for your heritage. Uncouth, with a lust for gambling and painfully honest home truths (the way she revels in the word penis is a joy to behold), Soonja battles most against young David. He, being the youngest, is most susceptible to the push and pull of cultural past and cultural present. Yelling at his nan for not being the “traditional” American Grandma, is a funny, yet bracing, reminder that finding ones self in a new home is an ongoing struggle. Youn Yuh-Jung eats into the role with relish, never forgetting to find the warmth amidst the wicked asides. A quiet moment in which she realises David is thinking about death at such a troublingly young age is devastatingly touching, her reaction full of patience and love.
The craft here is superb from top to bottom. A cast filled with terrific performances, I haven’t even mentioned Noel Cho as David’s sister Anne who does a lot with the more smaller role, those sweeping visuals and possibly one of the years best scores. Emile Mosseri using simple piano to elicit rhythms that marry the film’s genial compassionate pace. Minari is not a film to expect broad audience pleasing moments of bold gestures, dramatic finales or award baiting monologues. Chung, who also writes, wants to focus on the intimate, the private and the almost inconsequential everyday moments that make up one family’s life. It leaves the impression of aimlessness at times, yet it is never boring. Steadily rising into an ending, that yes does involve some mildly dramatic fire, but is almost shocking in its sharp quietness. A reminder that life is just a series of these small interactions, ones that illuminate who we are and who we can be. Perhaps that is really what the American Dream is all about. The pursuit of purpose.
Verdict: Minari is a beautifully shot, gentle touch of a film, by focusing on the American Dream through the specificity of one Korean family it offers no grand statements, only empathy, patience and love. It is a film to enrich your soul.