Minari is a Korean name for water dropwort, a type of green vegetable commonly found across East Asia. As we learn early in the film, Minari is relatively easy to cultivate, as it grows everywhere. The plant represents the central metaphor of Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari – Korean culture taking roots on American soil.
The film tells the Yi family’s story, headed by Jacob and Monica, a couple who migrated to the U.S. from South Korea after getting married. We meet the couple as they are moving to Arkansas from California with their two children, Anne and David, so that Jacob could start his business farming and wholesaling Korean vegetables. In the meantime, Monica and Jacob’s primary income comes from venting chicks. As the film progresses, we see the couple experience the ups and downs of making a living and raising children while trying to figure out what keeps them apart and why they should stay together.
While the duality of a Korean-American identity plays an important part in the film, the characters themselves don’t seem preoccupied with questions of identity and culture. They are too busy merely living their lives. That is why, if we subtract the ethnic origin of its main characters, Minari could be a story about any American family struggling to reach the promised land of financial security and material abundance in the Reagan era. Maybe, you had even seen a similar film about a white family trying to make it in the South before. But definitely not about a family that looks like the Yi family and, most likely, not told with this level of honesty and vulnerability.
The universality of the Yi family’s experience and Chung’s refusal to dilute them to one-dimensional stand-ins represents issues of politics, race, and identity, making Minari a riveting story to watch. Chung manages to highlight the importance of the Korean identity to the Yi family time and time again in how they interact with each other and stand out against those around them while avoiding caricaturing members of the family and eclipsing their humanity.
This humanization is achieved with the right balance of both dramatization and humor. In addition to pointing out the health benefits of Mountain Dew, the movie is also visually stunning with earthy colors reminding us of the core theme of roots and growth. It’s worth noting that Steven Yeun is brilliant as Jacob; however, Han Ye-Ri’s performance shone the brightest to me. Ye-Ri does a fantastic job of not only not getting lost while starring against Yeun, a much more well-known actor to the Western audience, but finding her own momentum. Alan Kim also leaves a lasting impression with his portrayal of David, the younger sibling who is the heart of the family.
Minari is expected to be released by A24 Films on February 12.
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