The open, green plot of land that the Yi family moves to at the start of Minari represents something different to each member. The kids, David (played by Alan Kim) and Anne (Noel Cho), treat it as a playground, a mysterious new landscape to run around and explore. The mother, Monica (Yeri Han), views the isolated lot—and the vacant trailer home in the middle of it—with horror and resignation. But the dad, Jacob (Steven Yeun), sees only pure potential, the chance to make something of his own. “It’s an investment. Don’t worry; we’ll earn it all back,” he reassures his wife. “This is how you farm in America.”
The Jury Prize winner at 2021’s Sundance Film Festival, Minari is a warm drama inspired by the director Lee Isaac Chung’s own childhood and follows a Korean family that moves to rural Arkansas in the 1980s. Though it’s stirring, the film is not some rose-tinted account of the American dream pursued and achieved. The soil that Jacob grabs whole fistfuls of and proclaims “the best dirt in America” seems to him the most tactile symbol of opportunity imaginable. But Chung’s movie explores how the earth punishes Jacob for his belief in it, while also charting the Yi family’s efforts to simply survive.
Minari works because it knows that behind every sweet childhood memory lies bitter struggle. The story is utterly charming when told from David’s point of view, and unflinching when it pivots to the complicated dynamics of his parents’ marriage. Chung’s humanistic approach as a filmmaker reminds me of François Truffaut at his best, using personal details to weave narratives that feel grand beyond their scale. Minari is about just one family carving out a life in the middle of nowhere, but it has volumes to say about the wonders and frustrations of building an independent existence in America.
When the film begins, Jacob and Monica have spent their marriage’s early years working as chicken sexers in California, earning a pittance sorting chicks at hatcheries. To Jacob, the Arkansas farm offers an escape from that monotony, and he dives into his new work with enthusiasm. He takes on a kooky farmhand, Paul (an overwhelmingly charming Will Patton), who advises him to space out his lettuce plants so that they can grow huge, “the Arkansas way.” The promise of the land lies in the space, the emptiness, the room for growth; while Monica misses city life, Jacob is enchanted by his limitless new horizon.
Jacob’s starry-eyed dreams of independence and success are counterbalanced by Monica’s intense homesickness. When her mother, Soon-ja (a wry, hilarious Youn Yuh-jung), comes from South Korea to stay with the family, she brings a bag of dried anchovies, and Monica cries at the sight of them. Soon-ja is a delight—foulmouthed, unceremonious, and funny—but David is largely baffled by her. He complains that she doesn’t behave like a “real Grandma” and turns up his nose at the Korean treats she offers him. Chung packages many small moments like this together, gathering emotional weight before the film reaches its bigger plot twists. Yeun and Han’s nuanced work sells Jacob and Monica’s deep connection despite their money troubles and marital strife.
Minari is a generational narrative that mostly avoids the clichés of immigrant parents and their American-born children. Though he has a disciplinary streak, Jacob is the most enamored of life in the States and most eager to reject any hint of old-world superstition (at one point, he shoos away a water dowser who tries to help him irrigate his farm). David, though initially suspicious of his grandmother, forms a tight bond with her because she lets him be a kid, whereas his mother hovers over him, fretting about a congenital heart condition that requires her to constantly check his blood pressure.
Chung’s strengths are in the littlest observations. Through the film’s two-hour running time, he seeds enough context to tell a whole story in one guilty look between Jacob and Monica, or in an unintentionally rude comment from a well-meaning David to his grandmother. So when the family’s financial woes mount and the brutal third act arrives, the developments don’t feel like a melodramatic deluge. Viewers can empathize as much with Jacob’s ambitions as they can with Monica’s exasperation at his fixation on work over family. Minari is a tale that will feel familiar to many, but Chung grounds it in brilliant specificity.