by Philip Price
Director: Lee Isaac Chung
Starring: Steven Yeun, Yeri Han & Yuh-jung Youn
Runtime: 1 hour & 55 minutes
“Minari” is a film based largely on writer/director Lee Isaac Chung's own experiences of being of Korean descent and moving to middle-of-nowhere Arkansas in the 1980s in order for his family to start anew and his father to start a farm. It is then, obviously, a very personal story and therefore undoubtedly includes what must be several specific details that transport Chung back to what he likely remembers as a very brief, but meaningful time in his life. I say this up front because of how much the red hat the character of the father wears in the film struck me. Nothing is ever said about it, nothing really happens to it or with it, but it's always there; it's as if it is Jacob's (Steven Yeun) safety blanket and a staple of his appearance critical to how his children will always remember and picture him. I have a certain shirt I always associate my own father with and I'm sure this is true for many others as well, but it is the fact Chung's screenplay and eventual film make sure to include this level of detail while never zeroing in on it that really relays why “Minari” is not only a story of the American experience as seen through the lens of Korean heritage, but simply a story of the American experience; maybe even the most American of experiences.
As Jacob along with his wife and children emerge from their vehicles after pulling up to their new house - on their new land - it's not hard to sense the contribution that at least Jacob is ready to make even if the rest of his family aren't sold on the idea yet. Much in the way a character later plants the Korean vegetable minari from which the film takes its name, Jacob is ready to put down his own roots, but unlike the minari Jacob is somewhat hesitant to begin to assume the values, behaviors, and beliefs of his new surroundings. It's in this kind of juxtaposition of Jacob wanting to utilize the land to fulfill his own dreams and his own purposes while expecting the land to take nothing from him in return that a sense of the family dynamic can be observed as well. As much as Jacob wants to fulfill the idea of the American dream that he's been chasing since moving from Korea a decade or so prior he is simultaneously driving away what would make achieving said dream worthwhile. “Minari” is a story of a family assimilating into their new environment, yes, but it's more specifically a story of the adjustment period within their own circle than it is with the one around them. It is due to the specificity in Chung's writing and the gentleness of his direction that the whole of the film is as significant as each individual moment. A masterclass in presenting complex emotions through a simple guise, “Minari” is an exceptional work.