A Korean family drives through the Arkansas landscape, leaving behind California for farming prospects on affordable land. It’s the 80s and a search for the American dream. They pass rolling fields of vegetation where cows chump on grass and trees litter vast, open spaces. Jacob (Steven Yuen), the father, drives the rental moving truck and behind is the mother, Monica (Yeri Han), with children Anne (Noel Kate Cho) and six-year-old David (Alan S. Kim).
They arrive at their new home, which sits on wheels to the side of 50 acres of land, but without steps to ascend. There are no neighbors in sight. Monica clumsily climbs into the long mobile home; without saying so, she is not happy to be there. However, the soil is the perfect color for growing produce. Jacob’s excitement is a mixture of confidence and pride in proving himself more capable than working at a chicken sexing facility, where he and Monica try to make ends meet. This farm is their chance to succeed in America, but the small-town community is undoubtedly a culture shock.
Minari is partly autobiographical of director and writer Lee Isaac Chung’s upbringing. Its success is in its restraint and intimately unfolding how this family integrates into their new setting. It’s sumptuous in natural lighting, with a tender score by Emile Mosseri that tugs at those heartstrings. At its core, Minari is about a family moving into their next chapter and the fears of building a new home and a new life. It might be an American dream, but it’s also a universal experience.
When a massive storm drops directly overhead on one of their first nights, Jacob and Monica fight about their situation, and he decides that Monica’s mother, Soonja (Yuh-jung Youn), should move in to help. Soonja is excited to bring the family gifts from Korea and watches the children during the day while Monica and Jacob work.
Yuh-jung Youn steals every scene, particularly when paired with the devious David. As the Grandma, Youn exudes warmth and showcases the Korean values that Monica expects David and Anne to understand. Yet sometimes Grandma can be shifty. Watch as Monica tries to make a big impression at their first Church outing by placing a $100 bill into the Church bowl only from Grandma, acting indifferently, to take it back and hide it in her hands.
Amusingly, David is initially fearful of his grandma, who can’t believe that she doesn’t know how to make cookies. His disdain evolves into a hilarious scene where he brings his loathed bowl of tea to grandma, who sits on the floor watching wrestling on the tv and does not realize that David has replaced the tea with a different substance. She absentmindedly takes a sip, and Youn’s natural reaction heightens the comedic moment.
Youn is also at the forefront of some of the film’s most affecting scenes, like when David goes to bed one night worrying about dying. Grandma, lying on a mattress on the floor beside him, tells David to come into her arms, and she holds him tight, whispering into his ear the song he made up that day, ‘Minari Minari. Wonderful, wonderful Minari.’ It soothes him, melts grandma’s heart that she could provide him this comfort, and perhaps most importantly, Lee Isaac Chung’s film glides right into your heart.
Something is always left behind when you move away from your home. Whether it’s tangible, like a community, or the emotional comfort of familiar surroundings, it’s unlikely to be replicated. But homes can exist around the world because of their differences. as well as your attachment to either locality. The challenge with getting comfortable in a new environment is the time and patience it takes to acclimate and build a life afresh from the ground up. It can be disorienting, frustrating, and, even if you’re lucky, illuminating.
When the water well runs dry, Grandma takes David to a nearby stream, bringing home buckets of water filled to the brim. Monica worries that it would’ve been too much for David with his heart condition, but Grandma says she is building the borders of his strength. He is stronger than Monica thinks.
Truthfully, they all are, and this new home might just be right for them.