***Note. Before I begin, I am debuting a new grading system as of this review. Starting with this post I will no longer be using star grading for films, a format I’ve honestly struggled to find balance with over the past couple of years. Instead this review marks the debut of a “recommended”-style grading system where I rank movies from “Must See” to “Highly Recommended”, “Recommend”, “Passable” and “Unwatchable”. All of my reviews from 2021 to date will be updated over the next week to reflect this new grading system. Let me know what you think of it in the comments***
Last year I reviewed a film released through Netflix called “Tigertail” about a Taiwanese man who sacrifices his own dreams and goals for personal happiness for a chance at the American Dream. I enjoyed it but I found it to be a bit lacking and hollow. Fast forward to late 2020, and now early 2021, and we have a picture that tackles similar themes but much more effectively. “Minari” is an A24 release that made the rounds at film festivals in late 2020 becoming one of the best films of the year as a result. The masses have finally been given access to the movie in its officially release in 2021 thanks to A24’s digital theater experience on the studio’s official website. Starring Steven Yeun, Han Ye-ri, Alan Kim, Noel Kate Cho, and Young Yuh-jung as the immigrated Korean Yi family, “Minari” focus on their attempt to embrace the American Dream through the patriarch’s goal of planting a Korean garden, but the strain causes rifts in the family as they try to assimilate into American society. It’s an intensely personal and sincere portrait of life based on the director’s real-life experiences, a recipe that, in the right hands, often makes for some of the best films out there.
“Minari”, which takes its name from a Korean plant that serves as a symbolic detail in the larger theme of the film, was written and directed by Lee Isaac Chung and based on his own upbringing. While there are English speakers in the film, much of the inter-family dialogue is spoken in Korean making this, more or less, a foreign language film exploring a family’s attempts to maintain their own cultural identity while also attempting to conform to their new society in 1980s America. Along the way the Yis struggle with thier own division, with father and mother Jacob and Monica (Steven Yeun and Han Ye-ri) constantly on the brink of divorce while young daughter Anne (Noel Kate Cho) finds assimilating to American society much easier and seeks answers through church. The youngest child David (Alan Kim) struggles to relate to his grandmother Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung) who fails to live up to David’s standards for a grandmother. This family dynamic is the main focus of most of the film showing the family’s divide in terms of culture and relationships.
While the overarching narrative is actually about Jacob’s longing to turn a dead piece of farmland into a garden of Korean plants in order to provide for his family, the intricate detail put into how each family member adapts to their American lives is the most eye-opening element of the film. The two children, Anne and David, are much more Americanized. Anne begins to find a connection through the church and is more conforming of the 1980s standard American lifestyle, reflected in the fact that she blends into the background more than the other family members do. David has an American perspective on what a grandmother should be so when Soon-ja enters his life he struggles with her more Korean identity and personality because he longs for the American symbol of matriarchy. Soon-ja on the other hand has a long way to go to conform to American society as she is old and has embraced Korean traditions and culture her entire life. This leads her to, at one point, directly indicate through an old Korean love song that Jacob and Monica are trapped somewhere in the middle. Both are barely holding on to their cultural heritage, but they’re also desperately trying to learn to coexist and find a sense of community in the 1980s American west. So what we have is a brilliant depiction of assimilation and adaptation personified through different generations starting with the elder who is more familiar with her native culture contrasting the children who are more Americanized with the parents somewhere in the middle not sure how they want to define themselves anymore.
These themes come to a head through the movie’s overarching narrative, which is Jacob’s attempt to live off the land and provide for his family. We see through both quick and slowly built moments that this struggle to succeed in American is taking a tole on Jacob and Monica’s marriage causing them to fight and question what is more important, their love for each other or their success in their goals. What is more valuable? Your identity, culture and family or the idea of success and accomplishment…the ultimate question every American has to face today, let alone in the 1980s. Yet, the film doesn’t demonize the American Dream. It simply seeks to put priorities in perspective and explore how the struggle for success can often clash with previously set priorities in life. It also shines a light on how the American experience differs for immigrants who are introduced to a completely different perspective on life compared to what they were used to in their previous nation and how difficult it can be to adjust to a world much different from your own. This brings us to the name of the film, “Minari”, which, as I previously stated, references a Korean plant that grows almost anywhere like a weed but also has so many great uses that it serves as a versatile and dependable resource. I think the use of this plant represents the rise in Korean immigrants in the 1980s and how those people had more to offer than simply conforming to the American way, a lesson that the Yi family has to learn the hard way and still hasn’t quite embraced by the time the credits role.
“Minari” was a fun movie to dissect and appreciate. Through all this I haven’t even commented on how great the acting is and the visual beauty of Lee Isaac Chung’s direction and Lachlan Milne’s cinematography as well as the music and writing that compliment the mood and tone of every scene perfectly. It is a slow burn that will probably test the patience of any unprepared viewer, but it has so much to offer for those willing to look beyond the surface level and understand its exploration of family dynamics and the struggle of immigrants to work their way into American society. Simultaneously uplifting and heart-breaking, “Minari” is another in a growing list of modern foreign-language films that captures the human experience from a perspective many traditional Americans may not fully understand without the help of these movies to provide that insight. It’s certainly a great work of art and cinematic storytelling that’s worth every second of your time.