When I was around 4 years old, my dad relocated my family from the big city where I was born to a relatively smaller one. I didn’t know what was the reason back then, as I was just a little kid. But as I grew older and my understanding of my family, in particular my dad, grew bigger, I started to see why he did what he did years ago: He wanted to start anew and build something that was just for us; something beyond where he came from; something he wouldn’t be able to accomplish in a big city. Perhaps even a better future for me, my brothers, and my sister.
Jacob Yi (Steven Yeun), the protagonist of Lee Isaac Chung’s tender and soul-nourishing Minari, wants the same thing as my dad — and probably a lot of other dads too. He moves his family — wife Monica (Han Ye-ri), son David (Alan Kim), and daughter Anne (Noel Kate Cho) — from California to rural Arkansas, hoping to accomplish his version of the American dream. But where my dad needed quite a while and a few trials (from opening a small restaurant to a plastic shop) before setting his mind to owning a chicken farm, the patriarch of the Yi family knows what he wants to build right off the bat: a farm filled with Korean vegetables, where he can provide both for his own family and for the small Korean community in the city.
Well, at least that’s what he hopes for. The reality is, of course, far more complicated than that, especially as we come to learn that Monica apparently doesn’t seem to share the same dream as him. Where Jacob thinks that the risk of starting a farm is worth taking, Monica, on the other hand, worries that starting fresh in a place where they do not know anybody, with even more concerning living conditions, will only hurt their family and their financial stability. “This isn’t what you promised,” Monica complains when she finds out they will now live in a mobile home with no stairs. The fact that they’re now one hour away from a hospital, knowing David has a weak heart condition that could go bad at any moment, certainly doesn’t ease up Monica’s anxiety either.
Minari spends most of its runtime observing Jacob and Monica as they grow farther and farther apart; as the fractures in their marriage get bigger the more Jacob keeps making crucial decisions without consulting Monica first. They fight a lot. And even when they don’t, we can feel the tension and anger anytime they’re in the same room. Witnessing the dynamic between Jacob and Monica unfolding is a tough experience. It brings back all the memories of seeing my own parents fighting over the same thing that the characters in this movie are fighting about.
Minari is filled with these kinds of moments; a snippet of a memory you can easily relate to, one which brings you back to a time when you were still a kid, unable to do anything anytime you see your parents growing apart. But what’s even more fascinating is the way Chung controls the story and the emotions of his characters. He never lets the conflicts be too melodramatic or manipulative. Every moment, every fight, every tear is always grounded. The characters are allowed to breathe and to heal. The audiences are allowed to empathize without being patronized. We understand every bit of Jacob’s decision while also feeling the fear and disappointment Monica is having.
And it isn’t just a testament to Chung’s compassion as a director and writer, but also to both Yeun and Han, who each gives such an emotionally raw and heartbreaking performance. Yeun is fantastic, always providing vulnerability underneath Jacob’s rougher side. His quiet display of emotions is what makes Jacob easy to sympathize with. Han is equally astonishing as Monica, never fully resorting to the “dissatisfied wife” caricature even when her heartbreak is getting more palpable every second. Their performances may not be flashy and dramatic, but this subtlety is what, in the end, makes Minari all the more real.
While the dynamic between Jacob and Monica is where the movie gets most of its piercing moments, Minari isn’t exactly a story about the dissolution of two people who love each other. In fact, at its core, it’s quite the opposite: a heartfelt tale of resilience, exploring how even when things in life or in marriage get rockier by day, love and understanding will always find a way to seep out of the darkness if we allow it.
In Minari, this hopefulness comes with the arrival of Monica’s mom, Soon-ja (Youn Youh-jung in a wonderful performance). Jacob decides to fly her all the way from Korea to America so that there will be someone who can take good care of David and Anne when he and Monica have to go to their day job as chicken sexers in a local factory. But David finds it hard to have her grandma around him every day, especially when he begins to realize that Soon-ja is far from what he imagines a grandma should be. She doesn’t cook or bake cookies. She swears a lot and spends most of her time playing cards. She and David are basically oil and water. But this doesn’t stop Soon-ja from trying to grab David’s heart. In fact, the more David attempts to create distance between them, the more Soon-ja finds a way to bring them closer together.
In so many ways, the growth in David and Soon-ja’s relationship represents the polar opposite of Jacob and Monica’s dynamic. Where the latter pair struggles to see things eye-to-eye, letting their differences drive them apart, the former finds a way to understand each other. They adapt together despite having two different ways of seeing life instead of growing apart. They find love and happiness in small things, like when Soon-ja takes David to go to the creek near their house to plant minari, an Asian herb Soon-ja brought from Korea which can grow anywhere in the wild. Every moment the two spend together is a moment to cherish, and it’s also through their relationship where Minari gets to drill home its hopeful note about the importance of finding common ground and empathy.
With Minari, Chung has painted a tender and beautiful story of hope, where the small moments are as important as the bigger ones. This is cinema at its most gentle and personal; an intimate portrait of family, love, and the American dream. You don’t have to be Asian or immigrants to relate to what the Yis are going through. What Chung offers here is a universal look into human conditions. Like the plant the title is based on, we, human beings, can regrow anywhere and everywhere after a tragedy. The Yis have proven this, and so have my parents. Their love and resilience allow them to bounce back. And at the end of the day, that’s what Minari wants us to always remember.