by Seth Tew
In this harsh world, the struggle for independence can be life-encompassing. You must leave behind comfort and stability, trusting that you have the determination and skills to carve out a life of your own. Stories of people overcoming adversity and fighting for their independence encapsulate one of the core themes of the American experience. Such are the stories of our founding fathers, the abolition of slavery, the pioneers, and even that weird trucking obsession in the 80s. These stories have been immortalized in classic American films like “Shane” and “Giant.”
“Minari,” written and directed by Lee Isaac Chung, portrays what happens when that longing for self-sufficiency takes hold of a Korean American father of two. Ten years prior, Jacob Yi (Steven Yeun) and his wife Monica (Yeri Han) arrived in California with next to nothing and worked to save up for a better life with their daughter Anne (Noel Kate Cho) and son David (Alan Kim). Now, Jacob has spent it all on fifty acres of rural Arkansas land and a rickety trailer, with dreams of running a farm to support their new life. “We said we wanted a new start,” he says, “this is it…just think of it as growing money.”
Nevertheless, Monica dislikes their new life from the beginning. The joy of farming is a feeling she doesn’t understand, so to her, their new life feels unstable, disappointing, and even embarrassing. She is apologetic about the house, self-conscious with the neighbors, and worried that her husband’s dream will end up being one big, failed agrarian experiment. Her stress is only increased by David’s heart condition, which puts him at risk of needing dire medical attention at any moment. With the hospital an hour away, she is both emotionally and physically stranded.
The weight of Monica’s concerns and the struggle of running the farm fall on Jacob’s shoulders. His love for his family and the potential of the land are what motivate him to keep going, even through the challenges of building a well and finding a produce buyer.
The tension between husband and wife is alleviated somewhat when Monica’s mother (Youn Yuh-jung) comes to live with the family and help babysit the children. With Grandma comes a reminder of the family’s traditional Korean heritage, a point of deep comfort and assurance for Monica. However, Anne and David dislike their third parent. Compared to the ideal American grandmother, she is uncultured and rough. “You’re not a real grandma…they bake cookies, they don’t swear, and they don’t wear men’s underwear!” pouts David in one rascally moment.
Land, family, and culture continue to intersect with each other, though their victories never seem to overlap. A solution on the farm is found the same day Monica begins to lose faith in Jacob’s provision. Grandma connects to David more the same afternoon Jacob must begin paying the county for water, deepening the family’s debt. As conflict builds on all fronts, the viewer wonders: what will break first? The farm or the family?
Director of Photography Lachlan Milne is known for his cinematography on “Stranger Things,” but his treatment of landscape and subjects is more reminiscent of his work on Taika Waititi’s “Hunt for the Wilderpeople.” The warm and inviting color grade is brimming with hope. Every blade of grass and crop row is richly displayed, almost as if we are seeing the land through the loving eyes of Jacob and Grandma as they excite their family about the beauties of nature.
The emphasis on natural lighting, be it golden or gray, gives clarity and texture to both the land and characters with equal focus. When Jacob is feeling the weight of his responsibilities, we can trace the stress in the creases on his face. When the crops bear delicious peppers, their smooth skins can almost be felt through the screen. Add handheld camera movement to many of the shots, and the cinematic experience is one of utter awe at natural life that feels close enough to touch.
There is no moment where the actors falter either. Thanks to a subtle and nuanced screenplay, every character is vibrant in their own right and only made stronger by the actors’ performances. Steven Yeun plays the hopeful father genuinely yet takes on the weight of the plot’s conflict with the quiet strength of a man twice his age. Yeri Han switches seamlessly between mother and wife, developing a social facade that physically manifests her attempts to keep from emotionally unraveling.
If the couple wasn’t so attention-grabbing, Alan Kim as their insecure son would be the unforgettable focus. His worrying over his physical disability, processing of his dual cultural association, and growing in maturity are all communicated more powerfully than any child actor I’ve ever seen. Through the compelling performances, the viewer can’t help but attach themselves to the trials of the Yi family.
Lee Isaac Chung has crafted a screenplay that is equal parts realistic and optimistic. The modernity of the film could have given it a darker tone, turning it into an expose of cultural prejudice or agrarian adversity. At its most heartbreaking moments, the film’s tone never slips into harshness or cynicism. Scenes are littered with endearing esoterica: a curious question from David here, a feisty remark from Grandma there. Every frame conveys an intangible warmth that is both attractive and hopeful, highlighting the potential for things to get better.
In modern American society, it is easy to dismiss hope and ambition as unrealistic. “Minari” proudly defies such cynicism, insisting that there is still room in America to overcome the difficulties of creating your own life.
“Minari” is now available to rent on Amazon Prime Video.