Filled with the ups and downs of everyday life, Minari is a portrait of a Korean family as it grows up, grows old, and grows apart. In a media landscape where Asian-Americans are too often invisible, the film is a landmark for American cinema. Despite telling a quintessentially American story at Best Picture caliber, the film was relegated to the Foreign Language Film category (which it won) at this year’s Golden Nepotism Awards. (They’ll do better at being less racist next year, they promise.)
The film takes its name from a resilient Korean vegetable, emblematic of the resilience of immigrants and families. In pursuit of his American dream, patriarch Jacob (Steven Yeun) moves his wife and two children to rural Arkansas. He hopes to build a farm and a better life, escaping his and wife Monica’s menial job of chicken sexing. Monica (Han Ye-ri) is less than amused at having to move to the middle of nowhere, while trying to hype up her young kids (Alan Kim and Noel Kate Cho) for their grandmother’s arrival.
Although the family is God-fearing, they struggle to assimilate to their new life in the Bible Belt. At a church potluck, an uncharacteristically demure Monica apologizes for her bad English while her children are examined by their Caucasian peers. As is par for the course in 1980s small-town America (really just America, in any time/at any place), the children are subjected to some cringe-worthy racist comments made in the most casual and oblivious of manners.
Eccentric characters like pious, war-addled farm hand Paul (Will Patton) and foul-mouthed, atypical Grandma Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung) add comedic texture to the family’s goings-on. A memorable scene sees Anne introducing her grandmother to the family’s beverage of choice—Mountain Dew. “It’s water from the mountains,” Anne tells her inquiring grandmother. “Dad says it’s good for your health.”
The story, partially modeled after director Lee Isaac Chung’s own childhood, includes beautifully quiet facets of the Asian immigrant experience. Actor Steven Yeun saw his family mirrored in the script, giving his performance a gravitas inspired by his own father, who was so awestruck by America’s landscapes that he traded in his livelihood as an architect in South Korea for a new life. A few of the slices of life that I related to: getting disciplined with a thin wooden cane, trying my darndest to avoid drinking bitter herbal medicinal soup (it’s expensive, don’t waste it!), and lighting up at the sight of much-missed foodstuffs that were schlepped from the motherland with care.
Minari speaks to audiences in a climate where Asian-Americans have experienced a level of othering and violence that we have not seen in decades, but it’s clear that the film does not seek to endear us to white Americans by declaring “Asians! We’re just like you!” This film is by us, to us, and if you just happen to see and enjoy it too, then great. A quote from the Los Angeles Times is splashed across the film’s poster in large letters: “This is the movie we need right now.” I couldn’t agree more.
Here's how you can stream Minari as part of the Portland International Film Festival.