“The American Dream” could actually be labeled “The Human Dream.” The idea of being part of a loving and supportive family, while achieving a bit of societal success and living comfortably and safely in a home one can call their own, is a dream that bears no boundaries, gender, or skin color. Minari, an autobiographical film from writer-director Lee Isaac Chung, is centered on his childhood recollections of his family move to rural Arkansas to start a farm.
It’s the 1980s and this Korean immigrant family has packed up to leave their dead-end California life to begin anew on a 50-acre parcel in Arkansas. Father Jacob (Steven Yeun, “The Walking Dead”) has a dream of cultivating Korean vegetables to fill the demand from an increasing Korean populace. Mother Monica (Yeri Han) sees less dreams and more nightmares as they drive far from a city and pull up to a tattered mobile home (“it has wheels”). Their young son David (Alan S. Kim) has health concerns from a closely monitored heart murmur, and is constantly being ordered to “don’t run, David!” David’s older sister Anne (Noel Cho) is mature and smart for her age, and acts as his life guide.
Monica and Jacob take jobs at a local hatchery to support the family while the farm is developed. The hatchery job is exactly what they escaped from in California, so Monica sees their situation as worse, not better foreseeing failure on the farm. A heartfelt argument leads to compromise and Monica’s mother Soonja (Yuh-jung Youn) comes to live with them. As David notes, she’s not a “normal grandmother.” Rather than bake cookies, she freely spews profanity and quite enjoys the “water from mountains” (Mountain Dew) amidst her practical jokes at the expense of others. In other words, she’s a hoot!
Jacob accepts the offer of help from Paul (longtime favorite character actor Will Patton), a local evangelical Christian who praises Jesus frequently, and has an unusual Sunday ritual. The two men manage to cultivate the crops, yet run into many obstacles along the way. Chung’s film is clever in that the real core is family dynamics. Grandma’s planting of the fast-growing minari herb in the creek bed acts as a metaphor for the plight of this family. Each member finds their way, and it’s clearly stronger as a unit than broken.
This is such a beautiful film with a gentle story grounded in realism. These people talk and act like a family, and the pressures they face are real. Racism in the south is never dwelled upon, but the struggles of a changing citizenry is faced by all. Emile Mosseri’s score is unusual, but fits perfectly, while Lachlan Milne’s cinematography at times reminds of Terrence Malick, possibly due to the setting. Filmmaker Chung has created a tender, relatable film and the cast performs superbly.
The result will strike an emotional chord for many.