(MINARI premieres in Finnish cinemas on May 7th and at the Season Film Festival on May 6th.)
I believe in the promised land
In 2013, my wife and I emigrated to America, back to her home. We settled in the outskirts of Houston, between the sprawl and Galveston, overlooking the ocean. Less than four years later, we flew back to Finland. In that time, we lost our jobs, all of our savings, and our house. Whatever American dream existed did so for someone else.
Watching MINARI, I couldn’t help but drift back to that time. Only a few short years later, it feels like another life. In the hands of director Lee Isaac Chung, I could live again the pain, uncertainty, doubt, and, ultimately, the love and trust that pulled us through.
This hard land
MINARI is the story of a Korean family in the 1980s Arkansas, two worlds far removed from mine. Chung’s intimate and compassionate screenplay is so intensely human and universal that it transcends all barriers of language, space, and time.
In 1983, the Yi family moves from California to rural Arkansas, having bought a piece of land nobody wants far from the city. The father, Jacob, wants to grow Korean produce. The mother, Monica, desires to return to the life they left behind. Meanwhile, their children, David and Anne, find themselves lost in navigating the cultural barriers not just from Korea to America, but the two Americas within the country itself.
As time quietly flows by, we witness their trials, shortcomings, and, ultimately, victories against life itself. There isn’t much in the way of plot, but wishing for one would miss the point. MINARI is a slice of life, a lingering piece of reality through fiction, which becomes a part of the viewer and stays with them.
A hungry heart
Led by incredibly naturalistic performances from Steven Yeun, Han Ye-ri, and Youn Yuh-jung (who won an Oscar for the part), there isn’t a single false note in MINARI. Even the children, played by Alan Kim and Noel Kate Cho, are immaculate, easily navigating the subtleties their difficult parts require.
Yeun and Ye-ri are fantastic, communicating a long and troubled marriage with small gestures and lingering looks. Each of them wants to say so much yet can’t or doesn’t know how. Their emotions bubble under the surface, exploding fiercely at times, and they come together again to find solace in the one place they know. It’s an honest, heartwrenching portrayal of a marriage that never falls into trite cliche or hyperbolics.
Equally affecting is how Ye-ri tries to balance her homesickness with what she feels is a duty she doesn’t want to bear. Her children are growing in America, a culture alien to her upbringing in Korea. Her daughter is already beyond molding, so she dotes on her sickly son, who speaks a mixture of Korean and English, borrowing words as he sees fit. But the cultural roots are already taking hold, and Ye-ri communicates the worry of losing touch with her home on both a physical and emotional level that wrenches the soul. Anyone who has ever moved abroad will be able to relate. Anyone with a soul can empathize.
Yuh-jung, playing Monica’s mother, is likewise superb as the aging matriarch in her twilight years. She’s been on her own for long enough to know what she likes, and watching her still try to guide her children will be a familiar experience to many. Her performance is both hilarious and wry but also touching and sobering, as Yuh-jung effortlessly reminds us of all the years behind her through half-muttered sentences or gestures.
Born in the USA
Supporting the cast is the ever-graceful Will Patton, who’s always a joy to see on the big screen. Here, he plays the traumatized Paul, who befriends the Yi family through an almost persistent kindness you can’t refuse. His trauma haunts him, and in a telling scene, he mentions to Jacob how he knows some Korean through his travels — mainly serving in the Korean war. The men leave the implication hanging in the air, then drop it entirely. But history teaches us how American occupations of foreign lands tend to go, and whatever pain Paul carries with him is hurting so bad he can barely communicate it.
Chung’s screenplay is intelligent like this, allowing moments to flourish by not pushing them on the viewer. There’s no indication of how much time passes; we only learn this from casual mentions or how Jacob’s garden grows. It doesn’t matter, either. There’s rarely a time in our lives we can pinpoint when something significant is occurring. Only years later can we identify such meaning to things, if even then.
Land of hope and dreams
Minari itself is a plant with a unique cycle; it must first die to flourish. But eventually, over time, it will grow anywhere. And as we watch the Yi family uproot themselves from what once was, it takes time and hardship for their lives to find a track. When we first meet them, they’re on an open road heading to an unknown destination. They’re nomadic, without a place to return to in a country they’re still trying to tame.
During two hours, Chung re-creates the American dream, told through the eyes of those who were there to build it. In doing so, he’s created a modern classic, an emotional relative to Steinbeck, where we can experience the full scale of human emotion.
I loved every second of this film. It’s a treasure to cherish for all time.