Spoilers for Minari to follow!
Part of why I love movies so much — and stories in general — is because they have a unique ability to put you in the position of someone you may not otherwise encounter. Apart from science fiction or fantasy where you’re put in the position of something that’s impossible for everyone in the world, there are movies like Do the Right Thing or The Florida Project that put you in the shoes of people in a very specific situation.
As a middle class white man, I’ve come to appreciate these movies more and more as time goes on. I can always stand to learn about and engage with underrepresented groups, and I feel like watching this kind of movie is the bare minimum that I can do in this process.
Minari does this and so much more.
Set in 1980s Arkansas, the film follows the Yi family, Korean-Americans who just moved from city life in California to country life in middle America to start farming. Jacob (Steven Yeun), the husband and father of the family, is determined to stay locked into his Korean roots. In his eyes, Koreans have better farming methods than Americans and he’s going to stick to what he knows instead of taking advice from Americans on how to get the best results in his field. On the other hand, his wife Monica (Yeri Han) is disappointed by and highly skeptical of the family’s new position in life. Naturally, the characters butting heads creates a lot of tension, but two immensely well-written characters with clear goals creates the opportunity for characterization to shine and for theme to take center stage.
Unsurprisingly, things don’t go well for the Yi family out of the gate. Jacob and Monica have a job sexing chicks during the day, leaving their young children, David (Alan Kim) and Anne (Noel Kate Cho), without a place to stay supervised during work hours. This leads to Monica’s widowed mother, Soon-ja (Yuh-jung Youn), coming all the way from Korea to America to help her daughter and her husband with everyday tasks.
Upon Soon-ja’s arrival, David begins to remark how she doesn’t look or act like a grandmother. Since he’s a young kid and his grandmother has lived overseas his entire life, this is his first time meeting her. In the time leading up to their meeting, he’s apparently given plenty of thought towards his idea of what a grandmother is and Soon-ja doesn’t check any of his boxes. She’s loud, she swears, and she doesn’t cook or bake, and to a child, this is just unfulfilled promise.
This relationship is given the most screen time and attention out of any of the others and it is because the film is largely autobiographical. Writer-director Lee Isaac Chung spent part of his childhood on a farm in Arkansas and much of the movie is based off of his memories. It began to take me off guard a bit as the focus was so much on this young boy and his grandmother instead of on Jacob. Steven Yeun is easily the most famous person in this movie and while he still has a leading role, it’s David that goes through the biggest changes.
As time goes on, David and Soon-ja’s relationship evolves into something that I can best describe as lovingly antagonistic. They pick on each other and are competitive with each other, but there’s a mutual respect there. This is especially true when Soon-ja decides to plant the minari plant by the family’s best water supply.
The titular plant comes from Korea and while it doesn’t always thrive in its first year after being planted, it begins to thrive during its second year as well as enriching the soil and plants around it. It’s a not-so-subtle metaphor, but it’s an effective one. As the family is trying to plant their roots in this new place, things aren’t going well. Jacob is struggling to sell crops, Monica wishes they were back in the city where life was easier, David and Soon-ja are struggling to understand each other, and Anne is often left to be responsible for her brother. Most notably, these struggles have the Yis’ marriage on the edge of a knife.
If you can’t tell by now, I loved this movie. Chung is able to take everything I’ve mentioned and synthesize it into a beautiful piece about assimilating into a new culture and understanding one another. As I alluded to at the top, I was somewhat daunted going into this movie. I was prepared for a big sweeping statement about culture differences and the immense difficulties people face as they try to achieve the American dream. And while cultural assimilation is obviously a huge theme in the movie, it’s examined through the lens of simple humanity.
Jacob and Monica just want to do what’s best for their kids while not sacrificing who they are, but as Soon-ja points out once she arrives, they’ve already subconsciously changed how they act culturally. But it’s all due to necessity. They want to give the best life possible to their kids. Jacob is determined to show them that he can succeed at something because it will show them that they then can do something on their own. It’s being stubborn and being determined at the same time — both of which are very human things to feel.
The differences for Jacob and Monica eventually come to a head and they decide to split up — Monica will take the kids back to California while Jacob will stay in Arkansas with his determination to make the farm succeed. But when they get home that night, Soon-ja (who is weakened because of a recent stroke) accidentally sets fire to their barn with all of their farming supplies.
It’s this moment that shows the couple what’s really important. After agreeing to go their separate ways, now they’re calling out for each other by saying, “Honey! Honey!” Their deep love is still there; they were each just too stubborn and set in their ways to look and see it. Meanwhile, David goes after his grandmother to make sure she is safe from the fire and moving in the right direction because he has a deep affection and love for her.
Minari is a lesson in letting people be who they are instead of resenting them for not fitting into your preconceived ideas for them. David learns this lesson regarding his grandmother and Jacob and Monica learn it about each other. We’re so quick to try to box people and things into a certain archetype but then become disappointed or angry when they inevitably don’t fit the impossible standard. In an interview with AwardsWatch, Yeun likened this theme to the American-made film being positioned as a Foreign Language Film at a number of Awards ceremonies. It’s an astute observation because as much as we may want to classify something as this or that, it’s just missing the point of getting to the heart of the thing — or person! — itself.
And this is what I love about movies. Minari tells a story about a very specific community of people at a very specific point in life, but it makes such insightful, wide-reaching statements about humanity. Like 2019’s Little Women, which is about a group of girls growing into women and learning about disadvantages they may face in life (a type of person and situation with which I’m unfamiliar), I was still able to get so much out of Minari because the story is human at its core.
Through all the interviews I’ve seen with Yeun and Chung regarding this movie, it seems like the humanity is what they were going for more than anything. Chung even has a unique perspective on his own life now in which he can understand his parents’ mindset better than he ever could before, and it really shows in the way the story is constructed.
By the end of the movie, Soon-ja’s minari plant is thriving. Jacob and Monica are still together and Jacob’s listening to some American ways of farming because he knows it’ll be best for himself and his family. The Yis are assimilating, but they’re staying true to who they are as humans. Chung and his entire cast and crew have crafted something that’s utterly beautiful. It’s human. It’s minari.