The home, perched on cinder blocks, that the Yi family moves to at the beginning of Minari doesn't have stairs up to the door. Jacob (Steven Yeun) tries to help his wife Monica (Han Ye-ri) up into the house. She refuses and clambers up into the home on her own. The farm that Jacob envisions is nothing more than some cleared acreage in the Ozarks. Jacob compares it to the Garden of Eden to appeal to his wife's faith. It is beautiful land but Jacob puts his faith in himself over a higher power. It is he who chose this spot as he digs up the dirt to show his wife the color of it.
It is strong symbolism early in the film and while we may have seen moments like this before, Minari is unique in that this is a specific and detailed story of a Korean family striving for the American dream. Minari is drawn from writer-director Lee Isaac Chung's childhood. His family moved to Arkansas in the 1980s to make a go at farming. The film is a take on the familiar immigrant narrative. Jacob wants to leave behind his chicken sexer job and make something for himself. He wants his own piece of the American dream.
But the film wisely knows that there isn't an American dream in reality. It is an American myth. Minari is unique in the way it presents the Yi family. They want a version of America yet also want to remain apart from it. This is evident in Jacob who holds himself apart from his white neighbors. He tells his 7-year-old son David (Alan S. Kim), "Korean people use their heads, okay?" after sending away a dowser, someone who finds groundwater via divination. He seems to refuse parts of America while buying into its promise.
Minari benefits from Chung's patient direction. Small scenes reverberate larger themes. The specific details of the Yi family make the film something wholly unique, like when daughter Anne (Noel Cho) describes Mountain Dew as water from the mountains. Or in the way David is treated by his grandma Soonja (Youn Yuh-jung). Soonja is a character who would be wacky in a lesser film but Yuh-jung steals every scene she is in with an earnest portrayal.
Minari isn't satisfied with generalizing the immigrant experience. It is deeply personal and detailed in ways that make it something special. It tackles the loneliness of the immigrant experience in ways I haven't seen before. The cast is phenomenal but Yeun in particular is a standout. He portrays a man trying to grow roots both in America and with his family. In that way, he mirrors the herb from which the film gets its title. Minari can grow on its own but needs to be near water. Minari could go for some sappy ending but instead keeps things small and poignant. It manages to relay a message that home is not just about a plot of land but also about the people who occupy it.
In select theaters February 12th and On Demand February 26th
Virtual Cinema Tickets are also now on sale at the A24 Virtual Screening Room
In conjunction with their theater partners, A24 has launched a virtual cinema platform to supplement Minari's limited theatrical release on February 12. The A24 Screening Room will host two weeks of Minari virtual screenings as we work together to bring Lee Isaac Chung's beloved film to the audiences who want to see it most.