Lee Isaac Chung’s family drama MINARI is a beautifully told story, charting the heartbreaks and amusements of a Korean-American family in 1980s Arkansas. With moving performances from the entire cast, it depicts an American immigrant experience defined by the characters rather than the external forces surrounding them.
The Yi family open the film by taking up residence in their new Arkansas home: a tired-looking trailer surrounded by an abundance of land. In their former home of California, Jacob (Steven Yeun) earned good money as a rapid chick sex-identifier, but Monica (Han Ye-ri) was considered too slow. Jacob has convinced Monica to relocate where she can work (“You’re fast enough for Arkansas”) and where he has enough land to establish a farm for Korean vegetables. With their first-generation children – David (Alan Kim) and Anne (Noel Kate Cho) – in tow, they seek to build a better life, eventually with the assistance of Monica’s mother, Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung), who relocates to join them.
“If there is a pivot around which all these aspects turn, deftly blended into a single relationship, it would be the one between David and his grandmother.”
The most refreshing aspects of MINARI focus on the family unit and its internal cultural and personal clashes, rather than those with other white Arkansas locals. As American children with Korean immigrant parents, David and Anne experience this most pointedly when Soon-ja comes to live with them. In particular, David has many surprisingly funny moments when interacting with his grandmother. There are many personal differences covered in Minari – the cultural differences between Soon-ja and her daughter, those of the children with their Korean-born parents, Jacob’s expectations or hopes versus his wife’s, and simple generational ones across the three ages of the family. If there is a pivot around which all these aspects turn, deftly blended into a single relationship, it would be the one between David and his grandmother. This relationship’s emotional beats are the ones that linger the most after viewing and are frequently surprising. Other strands focus on balancing Jacob and Monica’s tensions within their marriage and whether their relocation was the wisest choice for their family or relationship.
“MINARI achieves that ideal balance of a universally relatable story with the specific trappings brought to it by the characters with which it is told.”
In this way, MINARI achieves that ideal balance of a universally relatable story with the specific trappings brought to it by the characters with which it is told. The closest the film edges to rockier territory is when a white boy racially insults David, but these tensions dissolve as the two immediately become friends. That context hovers in the background but tends to inform interactions rather than ever becoming a driving force. Chung’s script navigates interactions naturally across each permutation of family members and neighbours, each capturing a different cultural or generational intersection. The film undoubtedly meanders at stages, with the rural backdrop offering plenty of opportunity for reflective score-driven interludes that perhaps don’t play to the most engaging elements. However, the pacing of MINARI, taken across the whole story, is exquisitely managed, growing empathy organically and without manufactured pathos.
MINARI is an emotionally graceful portrait of a family whose members are trying to find their way in the world and amongst each other. Lee Isaac Chung lays out the path for their story with skill and a beautifully light touch.