The American Dream, that Edenic endpoint for families who work hard and never give up, has long been depicted in art as something that only pertains to white folks. In cinema especially, the wholesome American experience of wheat fields and church barbeques has been limited to laconic white men who fret and toil to keep their family farm or find a way into the promised land of lucre that our country’s narrative claims anyone can reach with the right amount of grindstone sniffing.

Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari is a refreshing take on this story, one that tells the story of a Korean family in the ‘80s trying to achieve the life promised to all Americans. We meet the family as they arrive at a large plot of land in Arkansas, one that father Jacob (Steven Yeun) has purchased with his savings from work in California. Here he intends to grow vegetables and sell them to the region’s burgeoning Korean population. Loosely based on Chung’s own experiences, Minari is a wide-eyed and open-hearted look at a family in peril of losing everything and the strain that threatens to rip them apart.

As Jacob works the land, trying to devise a way for water to reach his crops, his wife Monica (Yeri Han) frets and worries about life in this alien new land. She misses her life back in California and worries about her children growing up in the middle of nowhere, especially their son David (Alan Kim), who suffers from a heart condition that could be fatal if he taxes himself too much. With an urban center and a hospital hours away, this new life could prove tragic. Jacob won’t hear of it. He is exhausted from being a chicken sexer and wants a life away from the grueling hours so many immigrants to America must work to remain here.

Minari, however, is not your typical Hollywood immigrant story nor does the family experience much racism in their provincial new community. People at church regard them with interest, at first, but then accept them. One boy asks David why his face is so flat and then in the next breath invites him to sleep over. Without this typical elephant in the room, Minari is free to explore other themes, such as Jacob’s fight with his own ego, Monica’s growing disdain for what she considers her husband’s callousness and David’s struggle with a congenital condition that could prevent him from ascending into the tough sort of male that his father envisions. Older daughter Anne (Noel Kate Cho) doesn’t have as strong of a story arc, a rare opportunity for exploration that Chung glosses over.

The movie truly comes alive when Monica’s mother, Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung) comes from California to help with the children and ease her daughter’s loneliness. Both David and Anne resent their grandmother’s presence, especially because she eschews typical matronly activities in favor of gambling and watching wrestling. Both the children can be cruel to the grandmother, especially David who swaps out Mt. Dew for a glass of urine and gives it to her. But it’s Soon-ja who treats David like an able-bodied child and not a delicate specimen, eventually giving him the confidence he requires that he does not get from his parents.

Though Minari winds its way to a somewhat predictable ending, Chung allows us to feel just what is at stake for the family. The crops may blossom, but Jacob struggles to find enough water to keep them alive. Monica, sensing that Jacob cares more about the farm than the kids, threatens to leave for California. Finding a merchant who wants Jacob’s specialty vegetables is a race against the clock. Meanwhile, David could drop dead at any moment if he runs. Still, Minari is a successful and tender look at a young family. A story we’ve seen on the screen so many teams before but via a palette that has long excluded people of color.

Summary
A wide-eyed and open-hearted look at a family in peril of losing everything and the strain that threatens to rip them apart.
85 %
Connective tissue
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