A delicate and moving view of immigration in America
American immigrant stories on screen have largely been relegated to showcasing the horrid conditions at Ellis Island in the early 20th century. This is historically important to depict, and yet hard to relate to in modern times. It’s surprising that it has taken so long for a significant movie on the subject to come out, but Minari (2020) has finally arrived, depicting the journey a Korean family undergoes when emigrating to Arkansas.
Minari follows a Korean family in 1980s America. The parents, Jacob (Steven Yeun) and Monica (Yeri Han), have been making a living as chicken sexers in California, but Jacob desires to become a farmer in Arkansas in order to specialize in Korean produce and thus chase his American Dream
Immigrant stories are hard to relate to if one hasn’t gone on a similar odyssey. Conditions for a cultural and geographical change are much better in comparison to the early 20th century, yet it doesn’t make a switch any easier. Writer-director Lee Isaac Chung bases Minari on his own parents’ journey through America, which helps add a detailed authenticity. The difficulties that the culture shock can have on immigrants is suggested delicately by Isaac Chung, such as a scene in which Monica’s mother Soonja (Yuh-jung Youn) comes to live with the family and brings some Korean food with her. Seeing and smelling this food makes Monica break into tears, encompassing the solitude and abandonment that she feels in her new situation.
Isaac Chung isn’t interested in delving into specific politics of the conditions provided for immigrants in the United States; rather the director takes on a non-judgmental and matter-of-fact approach that gives each scene all the more emotional weight. I was surprised with Isaac Chung’s approach in one particular exchange where a white American boys ask Daniel (Alan S. Kim), the youngest in the family, “Why is your face so flat?” or when another white little girl asks Daniel’s older sister Anne (Noel Cho), “Stop me when I say something in your language,” and starts making mocking stereotypical Asian sounds. These moments might have been played by some other director as a finger wag to American viewers, showcasing how young Americans have been corrupted by ignorance. Isaac Chung, however, sees no malice in the interactions, rather he finds them to be a clueless culture clash that is anchored in curiosity rather than mockery. It is these small scenes that help make Minari an accessible story for viewers, of people trying to find their place and fit into a strange new world and people.
When you center your story on a family, you greatly depend on its dynamics, characters, and performances to do heavy emotional core work. In a small film such as Minari, the entire narrative hinges on these aspects congealing. Isaac Chung’s steady hand is able to extract fantastic performances from both the child actors (Alan S. Kim is particularly great), and the adults. With the older performers I was pleased with how Isaac Chung used each as a non-caricature stand-in for the various mentalities immigration can have. For grandma Soonjah, it is the freedom and curiosity of discovering a new culture and attitudes. For Jacob it is the possibility of building his pride up financially. It is Monica’s approach, however, which I found most fascinating. Hers is a mentality of confusion, frustration, and solitude; hers is the strongest and most clear-minded character, and yet the one carrying the most tragic weight as well. She is fabulously interpreted by Yeri Han in an understated, yet powerful performance. Yeun continues an upward trajectory in his career, choosing subsequent intriguing and differing projects since he left The Walking Dead (2010-), Minari is another fabulous showcase of the extended range that the Korean-American star can reach. But for many, the standout will be Yuh-jung Youn, who steals every scene she’s in as the unfiltered and unapologetic grandma; she won’t hold back from trash-talking her grandkids at a card game, or stealing some money from the church alms. Hers is a sure-fire performance that bursts onto the screen and has you rooting for her character from the first time you see her.
Minari is a spectacular small and poignant picture. It captures the emotional journey that many immigrants face when coming to America and presents its conclusions softly and without imposition. For Isaac Chung, emigration and the American Dream aren’t so much to do with financial success and freedom, but rather the liberty to find one’s own space and revel in relationships. The fantastic directing, meticulous crafting, and strong performances make Minari a truly moving watch.