If there were one thing that could connect almost every family living in the United States, it would be the immigrant figure.
Perhaps one who came over from the east, greeted by the Statue of Liberty and landing on Ellis Island, or one who crossed the southern border without looking back, only looking forward to opportunities in a new home. These universal experiences are where “Minari,” released virtually on Feb. 12 by indie film company A24, finds its heart.
“Minari” is a semi-autobiographical tale, written and directed by Lee Isaac Chung, that follows a Korean family of four moving from California to Arkansas in search of a new life. Steven Yuen brilliantly portrays the father, Jacob Yi, who plans on starting a farm so that he and his wife, Monica Yi (played by Han Ye-ri) can abandon their makeshift careers as chicken sexers.
Much of the emotional crux of the film relies on the tension between Jacob and Monica. Early on in the film, the family is huddled around the TV as a massive thunderstorm barrels down on their mobile home. We see the two parents disagreeing over the severity of the tornado as their conversation escalates into a full-on argument after the storm has passed. Their children, a young and rambunctious boy named David and a calm, more mature Anne, create paper airplanes that stay “Don’t Fight” and throw them into the room where their parents are arguing.
It’s important to note that “Minari'' is largely in Korean. However, this doesn’t make it any less of an American film. “Minari'' made headlines when the Golden Globes announced that it would only be eligible in the Best Foriegn Language Film category. Besides being produced and distributed in the U.S. by companies based in the country, its subject matter and thematic messaging wholly centers around the immigrant experience in the United States.
Later on, we are introduced to Paul (played by Will Patton), a hyper-religious Korean War veteran who sells Jacob a tractor and then comes to work on his farm. Even as Jacob makes progress, Monica is still hesitant about their future in Arkansas. Her work, combined with a lack of friends, leaves her missing her life in California. To remedy this, Jacob invites her mother, Soon-ja (perfectly played by Youn Yuh-jung) to join them in Arkansas.
Soon-ja arrives from Korea with an assortment of local Korean foods and gifts in hand. David remains reluctant toward her presence, despite Soon-ja gifting him a set of playing cards, frequently saying that “she isn’t a real grandma.” The development of David and Soon-ja’s relationship is certainly the most entertaining aspect of “Minari” and might make you reach for the tissue box by the end of the film.
Still, the arrival of the grandmother doesn’t fully remove Monica’s Arkansas-induced melancholy, so Jacob suggests that the family attend a local church. Chung uses the church and religion to analyze how people react to cultural differences, lending the film much more depth and nuance.
At the church, with a congregation consisting of solely white people, we are exposed to one of the only moments where we catch a glimpse of the world outside of the farm. Here, a young boy asks David why his face is so flat, while another young girl asks Anne to stop when she says something in Korean and proceeds to unintentionally mock her by saying a series of stereotypical syllables associated with Asian languages.
Shortly after though, David asks his mother to have a sleepover with that same boy and, immediately following, Anne stops the girl when she accidentally stumbles upon a word in Korean. Both the other boy and girl say or do something extremely offensive, but Chung resolves that tension by demonstrating that since they’re both children, they don’t know any better. He doesn't forgive the two children’s actions, instead showing David and Anne’s willingness to set aside their cultural differences.
“Minari” is a reminder that, no matter what sort of barriers may stand between us, there are certain experiences that are universal to each and every one of us. With a quiet and reserved beauty, amplified through Lachlan Milne’s elegant cinematography and Emile Mosseri’s warm and hopeful score, the film packs an emotional resonance that few films this year — and indeed, in general — can offer.
John Scott is a freelance reporter at the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JScott050901