Minari is a simple plant, sometimes referred to as “water celery.” It’s a wild green that’s bountiful growth makes it ubiquitous in East Asian cooking, particularly in Korean cuisine. That growth makes it uniquely special – its seeds will grow anywhere, even in what would appear to be inhospitable environments.
The America of present day – in the early moment of the post-Trump era but with nowhere close to enough distance to escape the dangerous divisions the former president stoked and emboldened – is the very definition of an inhospitable environment. And truth be told, while virtually any earlier iteration of this country seems idyllic compared to the one from which we’ve just emerged, America – in spite of its origins as a melting pot and its engraved pleas for “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses” – has a complicated and oftentimes contradictory history with immigration. The concept of the American Dream is pushing against the pull of nationalism. The family at the center of Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari experiences that dichotomy directly, struggling to take root in the soil of a country whose promise is opportunity but whose reality is one intentionally placed obstacle after another.
Set in the ‘80s but perhaps never more relevant than it is today, Minari is as uniquely American a story as you’ll ever see. The fact that so many awards-giving bodies have relegated it to the Foreign Language category only underscores its importance as an American story. For Chung, the writer-director, it’s loosely based on his own life; for viewers, it’s a revelatory experience even for those of us who fashion ourselves “woke” enough to engage with issues of equality and this country’s innate cultural biases. This is a film about the beauty of every culture’s separate uniqueness and those emotional bridges that link us all together.
As the film begins, the Yi family arrive at their new home: a ramshackle trailer situated on an open plot of land in Arkansas. For family patriarch Jacob (Steven Yeun), this move is the true fulfillment of the American Dream; having initially emigrated from South Korea to California, where he and his wife, Monica (Yeri Han), struggled to get by for several years as over-worked chicken sexers, moving to the Ozarks is opportunity to stake a literal claim on American opportunity. Jacob aims to start his own farm, growing traditional Korean produce with the intent to eventually sell to vendors in the larger Dallas market – building relationships, and then a career, and eventually his own brand, from the ground up.
Monica approaches this new venture with caution and worry. Her version of the American Dream was always more practical than her husband’s – simply to raise their family, survive humbly but happily, and maintain a safe environment for their youngest child, David (Alan Kim). He was born with a hole in his heart and requires near-constant surveillance to ensure that, well, he doesn’t engage in the sort of energetic activities a young boy would naturally want to do. The marital struggle is yet another layer that seems to intrinsically impede this immigrant family, whose culture values family above all else, from fully assimilating to life in a country that puts a premium on selfish ambition.
An additional culture shock soon arrives in the form of Soonja (Yuh-jung Youn), Monica’s mother, who comes over from South Korea to help take care of the kids. She is as unconventional a grandmother as one could imagine, which makes for an uneasy transition for young David, who has grown up consuming American culture to such an extent that he has already formed a conventionally American understanding of what a grandmother is supposed to be. The journey of their relationship underscores the beautiful struggle at the heart of the film: the divergent ways in which we navigate life’s challenges as we attempt to reconcile who we are with what we think we should be, charting an uneasy path from where we come from to where we think we’re supposed to go.
Chung’s screenplay navigates these cultural and familial conflicts with uncommon elegance, crafting a narrative that flows so effortlessly because it follows the lived-in rhythms of experience. Stylistically, the film feels natural without being naturalistic; Chung clearly remembers the glowing heat of the Southern sun that warms so many of his frames, Lachlan Milne’s cinematography creating a blanket of beauty even around a life in turmoil. Emile Mosseri’s gorgeous score fuses with the material to create a sort of poetry, its lilting notes providing a consistent grace even amid the film’s emotional ebbs and flows.
Minari has the cadence and encompassing perspective of a memoir, though Chung does not structure this story as a singular first-person perspective. It’s indicative of a filmmaker who has processed his own memories and reached an understanding of the many differing perspectives outside of his own. The “American Dream” has always been an American struggle, a fantasy of aspirational opportunity that devolved into a rigid standard to which all should adhere. Minari begins under the assumption that America is the savior, but eventually we realize it is merely the turbulent soil in which we are planted, working to thrive in spite of our environment.