By Estelle Lee
In many ways, I am a part of the Yi Family: my own last name stems from the same Korean surname, I deliver messages to my grandmother through my mother, and I’m told to pray every night before bedtime. I’ve yet to befriend a Korean war veteran or work as a chicken sexer, but still every phrase and moment of “Minari” felt oddly familiar to me—and each poignant shot could make it feel like home for anyone.
“Minari” is director Lee Isaac Chung’s first partially autobiographical film diving into his childhood in the Ozarks as the son of Korean immigrants. The film grabs at parts of Chung’s boyhood but instead brings a new family into the picture: the Yis. Composed of Mr. Jacob Yi, the ambitious father; Monica, the skeptical mother; David, the youngest American-born son; Anne, the daughter of the family; and Soonja, Monica’s mother, the family navigates through their new life together on the acres of Arkansas soil that they call home. Having moved his family from California, Jacob is determined to create a “big garden,” a Garden of Eden that could save his family and make a better future for his children—Jacob’s attitude and work ethic is one that is easily recognizable when sharing an immigrant experience. But at its core, “Minari” is more than just another story about the American Dream. The film focuses on the turmoil of a family faced with tragedy and the connections that make that calamity worthwhile.
“Minari” excellently portrays a family struggling with cultural assimilation, questioning even their most basic routines and wishes. They wonder if they should move, what can be handled without extra fees, and if they should even attend church. When the Yis decide to pay a visit to the nearby parish, they are met with an intimidating and racist congregation. Being the only non-white people of the crowd, their differences are pointed out insensitively and sometimes, simply out of curiously. But interestingly, the daunting faces of churchgoers takes a backseat in a film that focuses on the feelings of foreignness. The microaggressions in the film add to the isolation Chung felt in his boyhood, rather than overshadowing it. Raised by Korean Catholics, my own experiences going to mostly white churches have felt awkward and tense in comparison to masses spoken in my mother tongue surrounded by friends like me. Chung perfectly encapsulates the family’s discomfort combined with a yearning to fit in using claustrophobic shots and a weary score throughout the film.
Monica’s mother, Soonja, does not make assimilating any easier—with her, she brings spunk, the old country, and seeds of minari, water dropworts, that she acclaims and says bring health and joy to anyone, rich or poor. David resents Soonja for not being like “a real grandma,” saying that she “smells like Korea”—a smell that fills my own memory with fragments of fresh laundry and the kimchi my grandma would prepare for me in Seoul. David’s disconnection from his family’s culture introduces a cultural clash between the family members that remains relevant from the start to the finish of “Minari."
The hazy camera work of cinematographer Lachlan Milne captures the confused perspectives of each of the family members who feel lost in the seas of grass that encircle them. The dreamy quality of each shot reminds the audience that this is ultimately the story of Chung’s growing up. Emile Mosseri’s score of the film adds to the film’s child-like lens—focusing on Chung’s tender memories from a young age, the score targets to create a lullaby rather than a strictly Korean or American-sounding melody. With a piano, an acoustic guitar, and sometimes sounds of crickets talking (no banjos), Mosseri creates a world of music that draws you out of your own reality. The performances from Korean American and South Korean actors Steven Yeun, Han Ye-ri, Alan Kim, Noel Cho, and Youn Yuh-jung are also remarkably authentic, twisting the film into more than a faceless story of the American Dream. Each talented actor brings a unique personality to the film and makes up an eclectic mix of family members.
“Minari” is an incredible and important film for those like me who resonate with its specificity—my grandma calls me the exact same nicknames, my mom always tells me to slow down, and my sister makes the same bilingual phone calls to mom. But in the end, the film underlines family, connections that are important to everybody. “Minari” is a must-watch of 2021, and all audiences should consider watching the heart-warming, Golden-Globes-nominated film. In the words of Soonja, “Minari is truly the best… Minari is wonderful, wonderful!”
This article was previously published in the Lakeside Tatler.