Indie Film ‘Minari’ Presents a Fresh But Familiar American Immigrant Story
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Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari is a sweet, modest independent film about a family of Korean immigrants relocated to Arkansas to try their luck as farmers; a memory piece based, in part, on Chung’s own experience in the 1980s (when the film takes place).
It doesn’t pander to the decade, as rural Arkansas wasn’t overrun by the more garish fashions of the time, yet it does share some DNA with the cluster of American farmer films that came out during the Reagan years (specifically, Places in the Heart, Country and The River).
The Yi clan — dad Jacob (Steven Yuen), his wife Monica (Yeri Han) and their children Anne (Noel Kate Cho) and David (Alan S. Kim) — are uprooted from their comfortable Los Angeles life to pursue Jacob’s American dream in the country’s heartland. Their new compound isn’t to Monica’s liking. The house — a tiny, raised rectangle — is beset by issues small and large, not to mention the problem of running water for irrigation of the farm. The rural community is lacking in diversity, though the farther away from the farm they get, the more they discover others like themselves struggling to find their footing.
The marriage is strained, though built on a bedrock of love and mutual respect. Still, Jacob enlists the help of Monica’s mother from Korea, Soonja (Yuh-jung Youn), who arrives in Arkansas to assist with the kids and the larger difficulties of acclimation. Until her arrival, Minari is a patiently observed slice of rural life.
Yuh-jung Youn has been acting in Korea since the early ’70s. She’s primarily known in the West for the 2010 film The Housemaid and a six-episode run on Netflix’s Sense8. She’s an exotic presence to the children, and she’s a firecracker. Her presence brings a lot of humor to the film, especially in her feisty interactions with David, who treats her with skepticism and disdain before slowly warming to her irascible nature. (We — the audience — love her because she’s not the standard-issue “grandmother” of the movies; he distrusts her for that very same reason.) She introduces him to American wrestling and card-playing (as well as Korean herbs to help him with his ongoing heart condition, a diagnosis that is never fully explained). He introduces her to the glories of good old American Mountain Dew. They play pranks on each other; a bond is formed.
The praise for Minari has been well-deserved, yet its pleasures are minor, reflective, internalized. Like those ’80s farm films, there’s a big catastrophe that forces the family to abandon their differences, band together and move forward — lessons learned. Unlike those ’80s farm films about American idealism and the frontier spirit, Minari doesn’t have that patina of liberal do-goodism that is great in practice but damning to art. It’s gentler and thornier; an immigrant story as fresh as it is familiar.
“I heard this really cool quote from another interview where someone said that all immigrants are artists,” Steven Yuen has said, “and that was very profound to me because I realize how true that is— to make something from nothing. America is the land of immigrants. It is an immigrant nation.”