Minari follows the experience of a Korean-American family in the Midwest.TWITTER/VARIETY

At first glance, Minari can be easily judged as another iteration of a desperate attempt to secure the American Dream. However, this film portrays a multilayered experience of immigration: the family have not only relocated from Korea, but have furthermore relocated from California in exchange for the American Midwest.

The film follows a nuclear family set up reminiscent of so many family-orientated films. A husband and wife attempting to manage their strained relationship, tainted by frequent disappointment and a contrast in their internal ideologies. The Walking Dead’s Steven Yeun — the first Asian-American man to be nominated for Best Actor at the Oscars — stars as Jacob Yi, an optimistic patriarch who aspires to trade a career in chick-sexing for the rural tranquility promised by agriculture. His stubbornness to achieve a new life as a farmer is conflicted by his wife’s doubt and struggle to adjust to a barren home with little opportunity, echoing many of the worries of immigrants who find taking the ‘grass is greener’ approach stressful and unpromising. Han Ye-ri’s performance is just as stellar as Yeun’s; she is able to convey her frustration through a masterful display of body language. Her ability is only enhanced by the dialogue which is understated and used sparingly — often this film’s silences speak far louder than any words.


While Jacob is often portrayed as our protagonist, we find that his son, David, frequently steals the spotlight, winning over the audience with his childish curiosity and palatable aversion to change. Embodied in him is the skepticism many of us felt as children towards adults. David is particularly austere to his Korean grandmother, who joins the Yi family in part to help with childcare and implicitly due to her poor health. Steely and enduring, David’s grandmother Soon-ja finds his animosity entertaining and tries her best to strike a playful relationship with him. But David’s unhappiness with his grandmother’s presence extends beyond the personal — he seems to view her as a reflection of the Korean culture which, as a child in America, he has become unaccustomed to. His tendency to switch to English when frustrated or alone extends this sense of dissatisfaction with the Korean part of his identity.

“Despite their personal differences, each of them share an innate understanding, and inherently shared experience, of moving on and starting again.”

Language is an aspect certainly utilised by director and writer Lee Isaac Chung, who intertwines English and Korean to portray the dualistic experience which David finds in the Midwest. Whilst chiefly in Korean, the film is wholly accessible to an English-speaking audience, and has drawn some attention due to being excluded from the Best Picture category of the Golden Globes due to its use of a ‘foreign language’. Interestingly, we see some of this perspective channelled through David, who finds difficulty reconciling these two halves of himself. Coming into the film, I wondered how much of a role racism would play in the film’s plot. Its setting in 1950s’ America of course gave me negative connotations at first, but I was surprised and impressed with how the theme was dealt with.

While attending the local church, we see David and his sister, Anne, converse with some of the white children there. In their ignorance, they mock the language and appearance of Koreans. Yet David and Anne simply react with amusement, and these incidents are never mentioned again — they fade into the background of the American experience. David befriends the other child, sleeping over at his house and experiencing his culture, while introducing him to elements of his own. They play Korean card games and eat cornflakes, never questioning each other and simply enjoying each other’s company. Their relationship develops with the same innocence and camaraderie which his father Jacob, and his white farm worker, Paul, experience, as they construct the family’s farm together, allowing David to see how two outwardly clashing cultures can both coexist and even at some points, compliment each other.

Youn Yuh-jung won an Oscar for her inspiring portrayal of a Korean grandmother.NTWITTER/KARINEMDONELLE

As David becomes more comfortable with his experience of these two cultures, Soon-ja’s tenacity begins to pay off, and the two become close. Youn Yuh-jung injects an intense liveliness into her character — winning her Best Supporting Actress at the Oscars’ — but moreover endearing her to both David and the audience. The symbolism of minari, a Korean plant which the pair plant together in a nearby creek, reflects the enduring tenacity of Soon-ja’s character, and acts as a preservation of her memory later on in the film. This scene is underpinned by an overarching feeling of wistfulness, of reflection, and some kind of understated longing. Chung is able to project these feelings of youth and childhood onto all of the characters, in spite of their own ages. There is a sense of new beginnings, starting again, which echo endlessly through the film’s 115 minutes and allows for a subtle intergenerational feeling of solidarity to prevail.

Jacob's attempt at idyllic farm life is disrupted by a fire.TWITTER/MINARIMOVIE

Jacob’s farm project ends in disaster just as the family’s situation is beginning to improve; an ironic sense of loss takes over the film as Soon-ja accidentally starts a bonfire which spreads to the rest of the farm and destroys months worth of crops. Yet it remains intergenerational — the entire family sleeping on the floor structurally parallels the beginning of the film when they first arrive in their new home — and reflects that despite their personal differences, each of them share an innate understanding, and inherently shared experience, of moving on and starting again. Minari’s ending gives little away, refusing to satisfy us with the knowledge of whether Soon-ja survives the fire, and how the family move on. Ultimately, we have to conclude for ourselves that the family does survive, that they do find new beginnings — because that is what they have always done.

The final scene has Jacob and David harvest the minari which was planted by Soon-ja earlier in the film, signifying the passage of time, and symbolising their resilience and growth as people and a family conquering hardship after hardship in a fundamentally quiet and simple way.


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