Asian and Asian American cinema has made great strides in Hollywood in recent years, with the Best Picture win of South Korea’s Parasite and the entrances of popular mainstream Asian films such as Crazy Rich Asians. While identity and culture tend to be at the center of Asian narratives, Minari by Isaac Lee Chung brings a new, gentle color to American cinema. No shimmer, no glamor, no suspense. Minari is all about family and all the joys, struggles, and complexities that it entails packaged all in one cinematographic artistic piece.
*Author’s note: This review contains light spoilers, so read at your own discretion*
What is Minari?
Minari is a semi-autobiographical film based on the life of the director Isaac Lee Chung in Ozarks, Arkansas, and their journey in the 80s of realizing the hard-earned American Dream. The film follows the Lee family: Jacob (Steven Yeun), the hard-working and ambitious father, Monica (Han Ye-ri), the overly protective mother, Anne (Noel Kate Cho), the quiet older sibling, David (Alan S. Kim), the mischievous youngest and Grandma (Yoon Yuh-jung), the “not-so-ideal” Grandma that tries her best to understand her Americanized grandchildren. As the family navigates through the rural South, their family relationship and cultural heritage are put on the line, where they must deal with the constant clashes and conflicts in their lives.
The film presents a tender reality of Arkansas that is full of subtle tension. While one might expect an Asian immigrant story in a red state to be full of adversity and discrimination, the film approaches conflicts with such gentle flair, where tension does not intensely erupt but sustains and lingers throughout the story. Minari also contains many cultural elements and markers of authenticity. The tangible details like the Korean herbal medicine and Korean spices that Grandma brings over and the slippers-at-the-doorstep, the ingrained mannerisms such as actively introducing oneself and saying thank you to others and being punished for poor behavior, all reinforce Korean-ness that the film surrounds. However, the family relationship triumphs over cultural identification, where Minari portrays an underlying universal theme of love and “resiliency of the human spirit.” While things can sometimes get in between, and priorities might shift as one lives, family will always come first.
This is a Family Story (with a hint of culture)
Therefore, family interactions remain its focal point, with the backdrop of the American Dream fueling the silent conflict between characters. The parents, Jacob and Monica, bear the heaviest burden as the breadmakers of the family, spending their days in the chicken factory. While Jacob holds on to his “Garden of Eden” dream farm in Arkansas, Monica experiences intense loneliness in her desolate home, juggling to keep the family afloat. The message is loud and clear: The American Dream takes lots of sacrifices, even if that means forgoing your happiness for your family. It also recaptures the American story, where The Atlantic describes the film, not as a “progressive triumph or debilitating failure” but instead a “cyclical mix of allure and disappointment, absorption and distraction, allegiances and betrayals.”
The cultural references are interwoven into family interactions, and not positioned at the forefront of the story, a refreshing move welcomed by critics.
Cultural clashes are portrayed in a provocative yet strangely light-hearted manner, depicted through the relationship between David and his atypical Grandma, who doesn’t cook or bake cookies but plays cards and feeds David weird medicine from Korea. Most importantly, she smells like Korea, a place David has never been to himself. However, they eventually formed an eccentric yet lovable and comforting friendship, where according to the LA Times, “frees both David’s mind and spirit from worry” of his heart murmurs that restricted him from fully enjoying life. The cultural references are interwoven into family interactions, and not positioned at the forefront of the story, a refreshing move welcomed by critics. The Guardian’s Anthony Kao states that by putting the family struggles first and identity second, Minari becomes more “universally accessible, but no less powerful” because audiences need more movies that “tell universal stories and just happen to have Asian American casts.”
In an interview with Rolling Stone, Director Chung also stated that he “likes the idea of all of us looking at the world with less of an emphasis on national borders and with more of an emphasis on shared humanity.” It has also been praised for its depiction of discrimination against immigrants, where the Lee family isn’t subjected to racism but rather just curious eyes. This move is entirely intentional, as Director Chung stated how he wanted to “shift away from discussions about racism” and focus on “exploring barriers and assimilation within families.” He felt so strongly that he eventually took out scenes of one of the church people who “ends up doing something quite awful to the kids.” He shared with GQ: “I wanted it to feel balanced, and that there is no statement being made about this Asian family being “good” and then being surrounded by all these threats from the Other, from people who are white.”
Art Imitates Life
The melancholy that Minari depicts lingers throughout the film, brilliantly portrayed by its cinematography, with the audiences entering the world of nostalgia. Although the recollection of childhood is rather hazy, they are as real as memories can be. Minari’s artistic expressions are unarguably its highlight, with symbolism intricately interlaced and scattered throughout the film. Even its name packs so much hidden meaning; in the film, Grandma grows minari (a type of Korean water celery) in the creek near their house. It’s a type of vegetable that can thrive in unfavorable conditions, revitalize the soil, and clean up the water. Director Chung explains how its purifying effect pertains to a “poetic resonance” that inspires the film’s representation of immigrants: They can survive anywhere, and they will do whatever it takes to flourish. The symbol of water also plays a highly crucial role in the film, bringing life and love into wilted relationships and carrying the Yi family through their hardships. The Oscar-nominated musical score also brings the scenes to life, adding to the film’s enigmatic mood.
Raw, unedited, and natural.
The acting, on top of everything else, truly brought out the charm in Minari: raw, unedited, and natural. As the family relationship unfolds throughout the film, the characters experience changes within themselves, where anger, resentment, frustration, lovingness, and tenderness are expressed through their eyes. Steven Yeun’s portrayal of Jacob, a prideful, stubborn yet tenacious man who goes through great lengths to provide for his family, caught the attention of critics, as he became the first Asian American to be nominated for Best Actor. The desperation in his eyes speaks volumes for the character, a steadfast yet unlucky man.
However, the best performance in the film goes out to Youn Yuh-jung, a living legend and force of nature. Youn is a frequent presence in South Korean cinema and television, where many consider her the “teacher” and “master.” While I never truly paid attention to her acting skills despite being a casual viewer of Korean dramas, her role as Grandma in Minari blew me away, despite her not having that many lines. She could have been just another witty, quirky, and encouraging grandmother (which she was for the majority of the film), but her movements and eye expressions in the film’s last few minutes sent chills down my spine. You have to see her yourself because this role earned her an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, making her the first Asian to win an acting Oscar since 1985. Youn humbly stated: In Korea, nobody will correct me. […] In Tulsa, I’m nobody to them. A newcomer. I need to prove myself with my acting.”
But is it overrated?
The film has achieved remarkable milestones, winning the dramatic Grand Jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival and the controversial Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film, and being nominated for 10 Critics’ Choice Movie Awards and 6 Oscars. However, Minari wasn’t able to form a deep connection with me despite my tremendous admiration and appreciation for the film’s theme and artistic contributions. Watching Minari is an extraordinarily intimate and personal experience, and this feeling has not been fully translated to my non-immigrant and non-Asian-American background. For comparison’s sake, I experienced a much more powerful emotional gravitation towards Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, another Asian-American family story starring Awkwafina. Part of this is because, for me, the plot of The Farewell carries more grit, intensity, and intricacy in its narrative. Minari’s story is rather simplistic (not in a negative way), and since there isn’t too much suspense due to the inherent tenderness of memories, the film moves quite slowly (which was entirely intended) and therefore, doesn’t truly captivate me.
Asian characters can finally tell personal stories without being bound by their cultural and ethnic identity.
Nonetheless, Minari still deserves the shower of critical acclaim and accolades for its depiction and representation of Asian Americans in a universal yet personal and evocative light. Despite some describing it as mundane, it is still worth celebrating because Asian characters can finally tell personal stories without being bound by their cultural and ethnic identity.
Cover: Josh Ethan Johnson/A24 via Vulture
Edited by: Yili Char