The story of a South Korean couple and their two children adjusting to life in rural America, Minari lives and breathes through its performances. Chung’s touch as a visual artist is light and precise, but his biggest strength as a filmmaker might be the way he photographs and directs his actors, letting them dictate the rhythm of his scenes while capturing their differing relationships to their new environment. To western eyes, the most recognizable cast member is Steven Yeun of The Walking Dead, a mainstay of American television, though his film success includes Bong Joon-ho’s South Korean-American co-production Okja (2017) and South Korea’s first Oscar-nominated film, Lee Chang-dong’s Burning (2018). Yeun plays Jacob Yi, a diligent immigrant father who balances a utilitarian outlook with unapologetic dreams of starting a farm for Korean produce. He moves from California to Arkansas with his headstrong wife Monica (Han Ye-ri) and their bilingual pre-teens, the older, more responsible Anne (Noel Kate Cho) and the younger David (Alan Kim), a demure boy who needs constant supervision owing to his heart murmur. When the move proves difficult for Monica, and her job keeps her away from home too many hours (and away from David), she asks her mother Soon-ja to fly over and assist her with the children. The foul-mouthed Soon-ja is played by screen legend Youn Yuh-jung — likely the film’s most recognizable actor to South Korean viewers — who lights up the screen and brings a mischievous glimmer to the household.
Jacob and Monica work as chicken sexers in the 1980s, navigating their workplace with broken English while sorting newly hatched chicks by gender so that the females can be sent to poultry farms and the males can be “discarded” — which is to say, burned as waste material. When explaining this to his son, Jacob cheekily expresses his fears about feeling useless as a man, in the hopes that David will inherit his tireless work ethic. Though what Jacob doesn’t seem to recognize is that the female chicks don’t really have a say in the matter either. The chicken sexing job paid Jacob and Monica well in California, and it pays them a decent wage in Arkansas, but they’ve moved here to make a living on their own terms — or at least, Jacob has. Monica, on the other hand, is willing to put her own dreams and comforts on hold if it means supporting her husband. After striking water on his plot and hiring local farmhand Paul (Will Patton), who fought in the Korean War, Jacob seems poised to achieve his “American Dream” of hard work and self-sufficiency — even at the cost of his family’s well-being, though he certainly believes he’s doing it for their benefit.The most striking change for the Yi family, upon moving from the city to the farmland, is their immediate sense of isolation. Their house may technically be on wheels, but they feel tethered to this plot of land with no one else around for miles, and certainly no other Koreans or a Korean church. Instead, they join the local, mostly white Evangelical congregation, where they’re welcomed, but treated as exotic outsiders. The children who Anne and David come across seem to vocalize whatever overtly racist sentiments their parents keep to themselves. These kids aren’t malicious, they just don’t know any better. Anne and David even make friends with a few of them and begin to rely on their company more and more as their parents get busier with the factory and the farm.
When their grandmother enters the picture, life becomes topsy turvy for young David, who’s never met her or been to South Korea. She brings minari seeds (a zesty herb) to plant by the nearby creek, along with other local goodies and recipes from home, which brings Monica to tears. The film intrinsically understands the power of familiar aromas and the nostalgia they trigger, even though audiences can’t be made privy to smell. David, however, is reticent. Already in a new environment, he rejects these unfamiliar smells, like Soon-ja’s teas and other delicacies, defaulting instead to Mountain Dew.
In his first on-screen role, young Alan Kim impressively captures David’s impatience with his new hometown, and with his shrewd and sharp-witted grandma. She doesn’t fit his perception of a typical American “granny” (an image he likely learned from TV), who bakes cookies, and doesn’t swear, and dresses in matronly ways. Soon-ja has no intentions of fitting that image. She prefers American wrestling to soap operas, and the veteran Youn Yuh-jung plays her as a carefree soul, but one whose immediate affection for her impish grandson fills the screen with warmth, despite his stubbornness (the way she teases him in return is delightful).
Anne is the quickest of the five to acclimate to the new church and her new surroundings, a home where the water sometimes runs out and her parents don’t return until nightfall. Noel Kate Cho plays Anne with withheld resignation — a silent acceptance of her predicament, as she plays compassionate older sister to David, and unwitting caretaker of a household barely kept together. She feels not unlike Asian immigrants I’ve known, some in my own family, who moved to the United States as children and had to immediately grow into new identities and new responsibilities to help their hardworking parents. Child actors are rarely able to embody this sort of realism, let alone with this much complexity. There isn’t a false note to be found in either Cho’s or Kim’s performances. They’re both remarkable to watch.
The story’s anchors, however, are Yeun and Han, who imbue Jacob and Monica with silent tensions that shift beneath their feet like quicksand. Theirs is a relationship where casting feels key; Yeun, though he doesn’t set a foot out of line as a recent Korean immigrant, has lived in the U.S. since he was five, and he feels much more in tune with his surroundings in the film (he grew up largely in Michigan). Meanwhile, Minari is Han’s first time filming in America, and she seems to draw on a sense of outsidership. Where Jacob, Anne, and David gradually begin to relax, Monica never seems quite comfortable with her surroundings. Han uses a gesture as simple as hands folded in front of her, with interlocked fingers, to make even her sense of poise feel stilted and forced. You can practically feel the tension building in her hands as she attempts to stay centered — for her children, if not for herself — though Monica isn’t afraid to challenge her husband when her kids’ happiness is at stake.
On the more operatic end of the spectrum is Will Patton’s performance as Paul, a former soldier seemingly plagued by some past slights or actions, whose every present moment feels like penance. He’s religious and superstitious and brings frenzied, spiritual energy to his interactions with the grounded Jacob. Their dynamic on the farm makes for an intriguing contrast. Through Jacob’s eyes, Paul is fanatical and impractical, a stereotype of a religious man and a “stupid American” who seems consumed by baseless belief. Jacob’s self-image, meanwhile, is that of a thinker who follows reason and knowledge in his pursuit of success. Though what he doesn’t recognize is that his belief in a single-minded financial pursuit can be just as fanatical. At the end of the day, Jacob’s “American Dream” of immigrant success, through some unwritten outdated rule of work-for-reward in Reagan’s USA, is no less a superstition than any of Paul’s little rituals. His belief in himself — both at the cost of his family’s happiness and in service of it — is no less religious.
Chung and cinematographer Lachlan Milne film each character’s uncertainty in a two-fold manner. In private, they capture their frustrations as sweat falls from their brows (the sweltering heat, both inside and outside their home, practically radiates off the screen). Meanwhile, in moments where the family shares the frame, the filmmakers present us with characters attempting to balance frustration with façade, navigating the expectations of fitting some pristine image of an archetypal “all-American” nuclear family, each with their own designated roles. They hide and release these frustrations to varying degrees, like steam from a pressure cooker. As this pressure builds, we grow to know each family member as intimately as they know each other. The camera begins to navigate each narrow hallway with more familiarity — as the film goes on, it uses fewer establishing shots of the house or of specific rooms — resulting in a unique visual paradox that reflects the family’s predicament. The more they settle into the space, the more constricted they feel.
If Minari falters at all, it’s in the way the film is packaged, rather than the way it’s made (so it’s likely no fault of the filmmakers). In their private conversations, Jacob and Monica refer to each other by their Korean names and other honorifics, but the subtitles still have them addressing each other as “Jacob” and “Monica,” the western names they probably chose when they immigrated. It brings to mind the subtitling in Lost, which ignored the cultural specifies of how Korean characters Jin (Daniel Dae Kim) and Sun (Yunjin Kim) addressed one another; Sun would often refer to Jin as “Jin-soo shi” (Jin’s given name followed by a respectful honorific) or she would use a term of endearment (eg. “Yeobo”) — but the subtitles would simply say “Jin.” The issue is a minor one, but in Minari, this simplification runs counter to the nuances and the sense of duality Chung sets out to portray. “Jacob” and “Monica” aren’t translations of how they address each other, but rather, they’re the characters’ public-facing personas, adopted for assimilation and American comfort. When addressing each other in Korean, they inhabit a private world of sorts, as a matter of familiarity, or intimacy, or even serious conflict when discussing doubts about their family’s future.
Still, Chung portrays the characters’ cultural duality in a number of other ways, deftly capturing the internal doubts plaguing each of them as they question their place in the world. Their identities aren’t under immediate threat from some outside force, and they seem plenty comfortable switching between Korean and English when necessary. But the less they feel like they belong in this mobile home, on this plot in rural Arkansas, the less it seems they feel American at all. In David’s case, in particular, being told the multitude of ways he is or isn’t Korean — he has even less of a connection to Korea than his parents — seems only to frustrate him, at an age where he can barely comprehend ideas of cultural duality. The film doesn’t make it clear whether Anne was born in Korea or simply visited as a child, but regardless, she has memories of a “homeland” David doesn’t truly know, except as cultural remnants passed down to him by his parents.
To David, “Korean-ness” is a kind of phantom, which takes physical form when his grandmother arrives, while “American-ness” is an idea his father attempts to plant and nurture. David’s grandmother doesn’t always make sense to him. His father’s farm doesn’t always succeed. And so, David is caught in a spiritual struggle for identity — one that will likely last for years — but ultimately, it’s the love and care of his parents, even when they disagree on how best to love him, that makes him feel like he belongs, even for a few brief moments.
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