Written and directed by Lee Isaac Chung
The human cost of ambition is well-documented, as our lust for money, power, better lives essentially, usually means neglecting those we wanted to share that better life with. Citizen Kane, the story of an unscrupulous entrepreneur who rose to riches, ends with the revelation that he died longing for the simpler times of his impoverished childhood. Any story Hollywood tells about a regular person who attains fame usually sees old-time friends and confidants jettisoned along the way, decisions that are later regretted in the lonely dark corners of fabulous mansions.
Minari, Lee Isaac Chung’s story of a Korean immigrant family that moves to Arkansas in search of better prospects, is about that balance between professional and personal success, only scaled down to modest blue collar ambitions. Compared to Hollywood’s rags-to-riches narratives, Minari proves that less is more.
Steven Yeun is Jacob, the patriarch, who like so many other great fathers, only wants a better life for his family. Burned out by just getting by in California, he’s bought a plot of land in “hillbilly country,” as his wife, Monica (Yeri Han) puts it, that he wants to turn into a vegetable farm. She’s obviously not taken with their new circumstances, far from what they know, and no matter what Jacob tells her about financial independence and agency, it seems to her they’ve thrown their life away in the pursuit of those things.
In tow they have their daughter Anne (Noel Cho), the serious older sister, and David (Alan S. Kim), the youngest, who has a heart condition and is told not to run because of it. Cute kid, made precious by his supposed frailty. Born in the US, English has become the children’s first language, and they switch to communicate with their parents, more at home here than their mother and father.
Working extra shifts at the local hatchery to cover for their farm investments doesn’t leave too much time to tend to their kids, and in a compromise, Jacob and Monica have Monica’s mother Soonja (Yuh-Jung Youn) move in with them. Five people, three generations, two-and-a-half distinct cultures all under one roof, and plenty of opportunity for Chung to explore generational and cultural divides, estrangement, bonding, and personal empowerment.
It makes for a touching film that massages you into submission with laughs, humanity, and above all, an immaculate cast of characters that together flip the script on those aforementioned films, where the ascent is what’s focused on, and not on what’s at stake, emphasizing the family dynamic much more than the farm itself, so while Jacob’s labour in getting the veggies going has its place and serves as the vine on which Minari coils, the real bounty is within the home’s four walls.
There’s plenty to enjoy here, best of which is the disarmingly funny relationship between Grandma Soonja and David, as they try to find each other. Soonja “smells Korean” (read: weird) according to David, and she also has an unhealthy fascination with wrestling and doesn’t know how to bake cookies – what kind of grandma is that? Together they detail the rapidly shifting dynamic between generations as traditional values collide with the new, and Chung’s writing is both lithe and effective in bringing them together.
Life in the country of course isn’t easy. Access to water and shifty buyers are just some of the things that stand in Jacob’s way, and Minari is wrenching at times because of it, because how can it not be? It requires a heart of stone to not be moved when good people do honest work with realistic goals and still struggle, and when you add to that economic anxiety that plagues an ever-growing percentage of people, the stakes somehow feel greater, because when these people don’t succeed, hopelessness abounds. To see the toll it takes on their relationships? Multiply it by five.
Sweet, but never close to saccharine; funny, but never obvious; heartfelt, but never overwrought. Sometimes films make it easy for you to love them, and Minari is that kind of film. As honest as the blue collar work ethic the Midwest espouses, and as warm as the hearth, Minari is people-first cinema, a family drama as fulfilling and evocative as old family portraits.