Minari is A24’s newest film, released to general audiences last Friday. The film, directed by Lee Isaac Chung, broadly relays the story of a Korean family that struggles to establish themselves in the US. While the film is not strictly autobiographical, it shares many parallels with the director’s own life experiences growing up in the Ozarks.
The film commences with the Yi family’s arrival in rural Arkansas, the location where the family’s patriarch, Jacob, plans to start his own farm. Initially, he calls it his “Garden of Eden.” While at its surface the film appears to be a simple tale of an aspirational family, at a deeper level it mounts the strains of changing circumstances and how familial dynamics shift in response to them.
With a stellar cast to portray them, Minari’s complex characters interact in ways that offer different perspectives on their situation. The relationship between Jacob and his wife, Monica, is one of the most interesting in the narrative. Throughout the film, Jacob and his dreams are directly at odds with Monica’s and reality. From Monica’s perspective, the family has risked financial stability and jettisoned community in order to pursue a pipe dream.To Jacob, the family has escaped their servile factory jobs and created an opportunity for independence. While their priorities are fundamentally different, their contrast mounts one of the largest themes in the film: the fallibility of the American Dream. Jacob’s visions for his farm are rooted in his enchantment with self-actualization and individual freedom. To him, a man cannot not truly own himself so long as his livelihood and stability are owned by another. This notion causes him to risk more and more for his dream: a dream which becomes increasingly elusive as the film unfolds. His determination soon evolves into myopia causing his family to lose favor to his farm. In consequence, Jacob becomes more distant and his family more destabilized. Perhaps the most interesting development in response to this change was the evolution seen in Monica. While the film immerses the viewer into the dreamlike setting that Jacob imagines, it cuts to scenes of Monica in her own world, developing her own competencies. In an odd and refreshing change of circumstance, you see Monica ascending to the position of a typical “patriarch” by adopting the role of provider and caretaker; she is prepared to independently shoulder the burden of her family while her husband stays in his “garden,” and in the clouds.
Despite the film’s coverage of heavier themes, it is filled with comedic scenarios, especially from the son, David, and his grandmother. If Jacob and Monica’s perspective is at eyeline with reality, then Grandma’s and David’s are slightly above and below it respectively. Unlike many filmmakers, Chung does not do the audience the disservice of pretending that kids are ignorant. While David may not completely understand why things in his life are changing, he is aware that they are. With David, we are given the unique vantage point of seeing how youth responds to hardship. Accompanied by his juvenile perspective, however, comes a misdiagnosis of what catalyzed the changes that he sees. He directly blames his newly arrived grandmother for their troubles and antagonizes her as a result. In a series of Tom and Jerry-like interactions, their initially childish acrimony develops into a sweet and loving relationship over the course of the film.
Aside from being thematically complex, the film was technically astounding. The cinematography and sound design managed to capture the setting in a way that was so whimsical and beautiful that it was difficult to withstand Jacob’s surreal perspective. It sweeps the viewer into a space that can only be described as ethereal then proceeds to subvert this beautiful veneer by divulging the dismantling family that the environment hosts. In addition to the sights and sounds, the pacing and rhythm of the film were fantastic. Chung utilized patterns in the film's form that allow transitions to be more easily understood by the audience, creating a certain predictability without sacrificing intrigue.
Minari is one of those films that you could watch countless times. It manages to balance depth and humor in a way that is both honest and heartwarming. I would heavily recommend it to anyone who has the opportunity to attend a screening. With its Korean casting and use of the Korean language, some may believe that Minari is simply not meant for them. To this point, I would state that a part of the global appeal for the film is the universality of the Yi family’s hardships. I would also state that while this wonderful film covers the experience of a grossly underrepresented community and region, its roots are so grounded in the American mythos that it can’t help but ring familiar.