In the 1980s, my father put all his hopes and dreams into the American Dream. He convinced my mother and two older siblings (I wasn’t born yet) to come with him to Massachusetts, despite not knowing more than a few words of English. Growing up, I watched my father take massive risks to secure a better future for all of us, but I never wondered if he was partly or even mostly doing it for himself and his own pride. Not until I watched Minari at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
Directed and written by Lee Isaac Chung, Minari is a semi-autobiographical film about a Korean immigrant named Jacob (Steven Yeun) who uproots his family to rural Arkansas in order to cultivate a huge, profitable farm. He thinks he has it all figured out, much to the displeasure of his wife, Monica (Yeri Han), who thinks it’s outrageous for their family to live in a mobile home without stairs and in the middle of nowhere.
While Jacob and Monica fight over their finances and all the costly tribulations that come with farming, their two young kids Anne (Noel Kate Cho) and David (Alan Kim) spend their days getting into trouble and hoping for the days to pass by more quickly. David is particularly taken aback by all these changes and struggles to find a sense of equilibrium in his own family, especially when Monica’s mother Soonja (Yuh-Jung Youn) moves from Korea to live with them.
This is David’s first time meeting his eccentric grandmother, and he constantly finds new ways to antagonize her. She’s not a “real” grandmother, as he complains, and it’s at this point in Minari that I was fully, emotionally invested. Perhaps because in similar fashion, my own grandmother came to live with us for similar reasons, and we didn’t get along because she was so unlike the grandmothers I’d seen in American media.
Part of the immigrant story (though, I was born a U.S. citizen) is grappling with how your perceived life differs and can feel inferior to the American normalcy we observe through television and movies. Part of the reason I’m even at the Sundance Film Festival is because I spent most of my childhood absorbing American films in order to “feel” more American, in ways my own family couldn’t teach me.
Minari is a true gem in the way it brings this common, but rarely talked about struggle of childhood development into a moving, but also authentically humorous story anyone can find relatable to some extent, even if they’ve lived in the same country their whole life. Married couples might see themselves in Jacob and Monica through all the intricate ways they argue and which words they meticulously choose to push buttons in their favor. First-born siblings will be all too annoyed to see someone like Anne repeatedly serving as the unsung hero of the family getting the least attention or praise, despite her good behavior and how well she looks after her little brother.
And others, like me, will wince and cringe as we see ourselves in the endlessly curious and decidedly fragile David, who pushes the boundaries of what he can get away with and acts like an actual, living child instead of a Hollywood screenwriter’s version of what being a child is like in service of a big, mainstream production. Minari is powerfully intimate and small by comparison, without coming off as redundant or a mere blip in entertainment.
This is the type of film where everyone will have some kind of different experience with it. Some might get much more out of its humorous moments where the family reacts to the strange customs of fundamental evangelicalism in the South as an outsider believably would, reversing the trope of Korean life being used for laughs when experienced by Americans. This really comes into focus with Paul (Will Patton), a hyper-religious neighbor who baffles the family, but you can tell the story has immense affection for him, even.
The most pressing through-line for Minari is its general compassion for all people, and how that translates to compassion for its own characters. I could write for hours about the horrendous decisions made by Jacob, who has to decide whether or not he cares more about his dreams or his family. Despite taking him to these dark places, Yeun never straddles too far into a different story. Monica could have easily been written as a one-dimensional, nagging matriarch, but Han knows exactly when to make her persistent worry come off as purely motivated, making her the conscientious objector instead of the antagonist.
And yes, grandma is the film’s beating heart. She’s loving, but also puckish and foul-mouthed. She can’t cook, and she won’t apologize for it. She’s the type of grandma you love more and more over time for who she really is, and this is a career-topping performance for Youn, a veteran of cinema who deserves to be a household name. For all these reasons and more, Minari is probably the most lasting and touching film to come out so far in 2020, and really is a film for everyone.
This is a reprint from the 2020 Sundance Film Festival