Hope takes root. That’s how Lee Isaac Chung‘s Minari roots all the stories of struggling Korean-American family in the early 1980s trying to settle in and chase the American Dream. Chung transports his childhood memories of moving to Arkansas into a semi-biographical drama that exudes grace, innocence, and enough authenticity in delivering a sentimental yet beautiful story of hope. It warmly sparks spell-binding moments from the beginning until the end, but always focus on where the roots are.
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At the center of Minari, there’s Jacob (portrayed brilliantly by Steven Yeun), the family’s patriarch who just brings along his wife, Monica (Yeri Han), and two children—Anne (Noel Cho), the older one, and David (Alan S. Kim), the younger who becomes Chung‘s surrogate character. Trading the comfortable life in California as a chicken sexing worker for a 50-acre land in Arkansas, Jacob dreams of running his own farmland and cultivating fresh produce to supply fellow Korean immigrant. Moving from a city to a more rural town is one thing, but moving on from a community where they can easily find people of the same cultural background in a town where fellow Koreans are scarce is posing another threat. The family tries to assimilate to the community in American ways, something that they only start to learn—speaking English in public, dressing like some true white folks are, and attending local church. Cultural shock is an underlying theme in this film and it will only get clearer when the family brings the grandmother, Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung), fresh from South Korea to move in with the family.
While huge chunks of Minari is inspired by Chung‘s real-life childhood in Arkansas (or, to say the least, remodeled after), the filmmaker knows better to find juxtaposition with symbolisms that become the film’s most enticing elements, aside of the acting and Lachlan Milne‘s (Hunt for the Wilderpeople) exquisite cinematography. It’s all there in the title: minari, a versatile seed important in the daily life of Koreans. Upon the arrival to America, Soonja brings along minari seeds among other things from her native land. She brings David, who has never really known and been to his ancestral country, to a nearby woods and plants the seed there, telling him that the seeds can practically grow anywhere in the world and it’s highly useful. Korean people use it in some dishes, in the mixture for traditional medications or, even, in stamina-boosters. Little David might process this information as a trivial matter, but, Chung, having experienced growing up as an American-born Korean, reflects on this piece of information with optimism. Minari seeds symbolize Korean people scattered around the world, even in the US dated back to the 19th century, growing strong in the diaspora and being useful to fellow people or the local communities. It symbolizes their persistence, to be able to grow even in foreign land, in the unlikeliest place; at least, that’s what Chung perceives.
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Being useful is another theme the film attempts to tackle, represented mostly by Yeun‘s captivating character. Marriage strain and the responsibility to have brought, first, his wife to America, then, later, his family to Arkansas have put him on the edge. Symbolism also plays a pivotal role in portraying his fear. In California, Jacob makes end meets as a chicken sexer, separating chicklings by gender—the female ones are kept and sent to farms, meanwhile, male ones deemed useless are gotten rid off. Jacob somehow internalizes the notion that a useless man is meant to be discarded, at least, that’s what he projects to his boy. He hides away his vulnerability and works tirelessly (or stubbornly) to achieve his dream, even by hiring an ironic Korean War veteran, Paul (Chung‘s frequent collaborator, Will Patton). Unbeknownst to him that his leaning towards toxic masculinity and insecurities has cost him the true happiness that he actually dreams of. His behavior often results in fights that ensues between him and his wife. Minari doesn’t over-indulge in the ferocities of the spouse’s fight, focusing instead on how the children cope with it; but, when the film does, it gets ahold of it intimately, questioning the true purpose of the family without over-staying the sentimentality. If tension arises, it’s the moment for Han to shine as Monica, providing a mirror to Jacob and reminding him of how the family functions.
The internal struggle coalesces with the external factors in Minari. Isolation from the neighboring communities has been frustrating even when it’s fruitful; but, sometimes force majeure is inevitable because people listen not to what the nature has whispered, but to their ego. Chung presents the story from the perspective of an innocently conflicted boy, making it reflective in the process. Newcomer, S. Kim, delivers the irreproachability nonchalantly. David isn’t always the best observer, he’s biased sometimes, but that doesn’t happen immediately. He idolizes his Americanized father, but he eventually finds solace in his through-and-through Korean grandma who defies all American grandma’s conventions. And yet, just like the writer-director, just like the audiences in the end, for some brief moments, David learns of his complicated identity dearly; and it’s warm to see.
It’s a true film about American Dream. Even when it doesn’t always speak the spoken language of American people, it speaks the working language of American. Jacob and Monica may speak to each other in Korean, address each other with their Korean names, and still embrace their true nature as Koreans during private conversations; but, they are eager to learn mingling and blending in because they want the best for their family. Between dreams, cultural identities, and family, Minari reminds us that hope takes root. That’s the credo.