Because of the dirt color?
One of the first things Soonja (Yuh-Jung Youn) wants to do upon arriving in America to live on her daughter’s family’s new Arkansas farm and help with her grandkids is find a place to grow the minari she’s brought over from Korea. She mentions it out loud at dinner after picking a spot only to hear her son-in-law Jacob (Steven Yeun) say he’ll think about it. He’s too busy plowing the land he bought to grow Korean vegetables to worry about additions, but Soonja wasn’t asking. She doesn’t need permission to walk down to the creek at the back of their property and let the herb grow and flourish no more than he needed it to attempt putting down the Yi clan’s roots despite Monica’s (Yeri Han) reservations.
Who in this country does have permission besides those indigenous to the land? It’s certainly not the descendants of white Europeans who’ve begun believing it’s their birthright. So many of us are therefore exactly like that minari. We’ve been put here by someone else to either grow or rot depending on an infinite number of factors usually outside of our control. Unlike the minari, however, none of us can truly survive anywhere without a whole lot of help. Maybe it arrives courtesy of our loved ones standing beside us along the way. Sometimes it’s through God and community. And other times it’s tragedy opening our eyes to discover the strongest path towards salvation. What better wake-up call to acknowledge what matters most than the possibility of losing everything?
These are the circumstances behind the dramatic move from California to the Ozarks that Jacob and Monica have undertaken as a compromise with which they hope to achieve their American Dream. While details of what unfolds during the course of Minari are taken from writer/director Lee Isaac Chung‘s own childhood, he’s quick to state in the production notes that this isn’t an autobiography. He merely cribbed some of the more vivid memories of his experience watching Mom and Dad argue, stumble, and thrive in equal measure while a boy in the 1980s so that he could craft a resonant version of what so many families endure to give their kids a better life in “paradise.” And you can’t help but invest in the harsh reality of that unknown.
From Monica’s shock at seeing the trailer that will become her new home (“That’s not what we agreed on.”) to Jacob’s resignation to send for Soonja as compensation for staying so he can continue building his “garden” and not simply waste away separating baby chickens at the hatchery, we see the trials and tribulations of raising a family and maintaining a marriage under extreme duress brought on by the pressure of needing to financially keep their heads afloat. Staying in California would have been a futile exercise where it concerned the daily grind, but the money was sufficient. Arkansas has conversely introduced a heavy trade-off—pragmatically and emotionally. Here Monica can work and Jacob can escape. But are those individual benefits worth their potential, communal demise?
There’s a lot they have to consider. Little David (Alan S. Kim), for whom a majority of the runtime’s perspective focuses upon, has a heart murmur that doctors have become very concerned about and yet this new acreage is an hour from the nearest hospital. Anne (Noel Cho) is at an age where friends are crucial if only to have somewhere to go away from the family unit and yet she knows no one here. Going to church presents an avenue towards community, but that in itself opens a can of worms being the immigrants who don’t speak great English amongst ignorant folk who’ve never thought to prepare their children for interacting with those who look and speak differently than them. Kids can be cruel without knowing it.
Look no further than the dire straits in which the Yi family finds themselves with so much leveraged into a farm Monica believed was only going to be a hobby. Jacob is on a mission to see his vision through no matter the cost and everyone is forced to suffer the consequences of those actions. So little David not only has to hear his parents yelling at each other with the stress of betrayal rising high, he also has to listen as kids mock strangers for being poor by using words that simultaneously reveal how his home life would be cause for them to mock him too. That’s a lot for someone so young and it fosters an anger and resentment he ultimately points towards his eccentric grandmother.
This relationship serves as a rather astute metaphorical counterpart to the one between Jacob and Monica. Their philosophies and desires are diametrically opposed (David says Soonja isn’t a good grandma because she swears too much, can’t bake cookies, and wants him to drink a gross herbal remedy to help his heart), but the stakes are nowhere near as severe despite what the boy might think. The more time they spend together, however, the more they figure out what the other needs. Soonja becomes a maternal barrier from his parent’s frustrations and David becomes a youthful bridge for her to maintain a calmness that’s able to avoid falling prey to the escalating tensions. They adapt together as opposed to apart—something Jacob and Monica would be good to mimic.
That’s easy to say, though, when you don’t have the responsibilities resting on their shoulders and a shared history falling short of expectations. But how much of that is because of who they are and how much because of what America is? There’s an inherent culture clash that won’t disappear overnight and the realization that fulfilling your dreams here is itself a dream that rarely comes true. Ask the down-on-their-luck locals. Ask Jacob’s peculiar yet compassionate new friend and farmhand Paul (Will Patton) who’s barely scraping by and ritually performing a weekend “Passion” by dragging a cross down the main road. No matter their troubles, I’d bet every one of them would trade spots with the Yis in an instant because they still have each other.
And that’s why Jacob and Monica’s struggles are so heartbreaking. They want what’s best for the family and whole-heartedly believe what they individually want will deliver it. As they reinforce that belief within themselves, however, they unavoidable push each other further and further away. When David does something horrible to Soonja, she brings him closer with forgiveness and empathy for the extreme changes that are happening. When Jacob and Monica do the same to each other, they shut themselves off from finding common ground. Where good things used to iron out differences, they now only expose the cracks of why that proximity might be the problem. Maybe their dream has fractured in two and led them miles apart with no feasible shortcut to rejoin at a later date.
Chung has packed a lot into Minari as a result with layered metaphors, multiple focal points, and a dense environment full of examples every character can lean on to learn the error of their way. Yeun and Han are fantastic as two people who are obviously in love despite time and frustrations making them wonder if the other no longer is. They put so much pressure on themselves in order to help the other that they can no longer separate motivation from action until a harrowing climactic scene reminds them their priorities remain aligned. And Kim and Youn are delightful together with an edge that’s as funny as it is emotionally potent. Theirs is a family desperately struggling to find a shared footing in unconditional life and love.
 (L-R) Alan Kim, Steven Yeun Photo by Melissa Lukenbaugh Courtesy of A24