The film Minari follows the first-generation Korean-American Yi family as they move from California to rural Arkansas in the 1980s. The semi-autobiographical work by director Lee Isaac Chung captures a moment of both transition and displacement in the Yi’s lives as they attempt, in the face of numerous challenges, to take root in Arkansas.
Minari comes to streaming services at a time of increasing violence towards Asian Americans. In the weeks preceding the publication of this review, a shooter in Atlanta, Georgia targeted and killed a group of Asian American women. In the past year, horrific and violent hate crimes targeting Asian Americans have soared, with Asian American advocacy groups estimating that over 3,700 attacks have occurred.
Minari is not a response to this. No single work could be expected to respond to the tangle of problems ranging from the hyper-sexualization of Asian American women to the erasure of Asian-American narratives. But at the same time, Minari feels inextricable from the current climate: as a viewer and as a person, it is impossible not to ask the movie for wisdom in this time.
Minari grapples with identity by reflecting on the domestic. Monica and Jacob, the parents, struggle with their marriage, fighting over their fraught relationship to the American Dream. The two are homesick for Korea, but cannot give up their dream of a better life in America; the two have a stable life working as chicken sexers, but want a more fulfilling life. The paradoxes that the two are pulled between feel impossible. Jacob pursues his dream of owning a farm, despite the financial and physical risk. But Monica is concerned with safety above all else, especially for their son David, who suffers from a heart condition. She wants to continue their work as chicken sexers, in spite of the tedium and difficulty. Neither is right; neither is wrong.
The difficulties the pair face are felt just as deeply by their children, David and Anne. While Monica and Jacob argue over the farm, the camera cuts to David and Anne. Huddled in a bedroom, they scribble “don’t fight” on pieces of paper, which they fold into paper planes and throw at their parents. Burdened by the tension in the household, David and Anne are forced to shoulder the weight of impossible decisions they are too young to understand.
In Minari, identity is examined through a focus on family and interiority, but is contextualized in the Yi’s wider environment. When Monica struggles with her English, a group of women at church coo at her condescendingly; later, a young girl babbles at Anne and asks if it sounds like Korean. The Yis are not just in an unfamiliar place, they are being forced to see themselves as unfamiliar as well. A shot of David riding in a school bus surrounded by white children reminds us that even when race is not named, it is a factor in how the family must interact with the world, each other, and themselves.
The cast of Minari is noticeably strong. Jacob, played by an effortlessly compelling Steven Yeun, is equally as expressive with his joy as he is with his anger. Monica, played by Yeri Han, is a more subtle character but no less charismatic. David, played by seven-year-old Alan Kim, is mischievous and charming. The grandmother, Soonja, played by Youn Yuh-jung, forms heartwarming, odd relationships with the rest of the family. The cast and their chemistry with one another bring the movie to life, vividly capturing moments of warmth and sorrow.
As Minari’s storyline unfurls, conflict seems to never fully resolve — as one source of tension dissipates, another unexpectedly emerges. Chung seems to suggest that for the Yis, a sense of precarity is fundamental and inescapable, as it is for so many immigrant families. But Chung seems to have a warmer message for us as well. Soonja chases David through the house, bursting with laughter; Jacob swings David in the air after he helps him find water. There are moments of levity and warmth, too. Trauma and difficulty does not eclipse the life of this family: there is something more.
A24 at Harvard hosted a screening of the Golden-Globe-winning film Minari. To learn more, and to RSVP for various film screenings, check out their Facebook page.
If you are an Asian-American and feel unsafe or think that you have experienced a hate crime, you can report it here: https://stopaapihate.org. If you don't feel comfortable working with the police, here is a website that can connect you to community-based alternatives: https://dontcallthepolice.com.
You can read a part of The Harvard Advocate’s statement on recent acts of violence against the Asian-American community and find a more comprehensive list of resources here: https://www.instagram.com/p/CMm4N6rHGB2/.