Sundance 2020: Minari showcases a family’s growth in Middle America
Oenanthe javanica is a plant of many names but is widely known as minari in Korea. With its fibrous roots - thin, branching and growing from the stem - the minari plants itself down and grows upward. It’s also an apt name inspiration for Minari, written and directed by Lee Isaac Chung. Like the fibrous roots, the Yi family branch away as they struggle with their new life in Arkansas. They are reminded that they are part of the same stem while experiencing challenges. And with that reminder, healing grows.
“We said we wanted a new start. This is it.”
The Yi’s are a Koren-American family seeking the American Dream. Jacob (Steven Yeun) moves his wife Monica (Han Ye-ri) and their children to Arkansas after Jacob purchases farmland. Monica, a self-proclaimed “city girl,” feels their life in California was fine while Jacob wants to leave a legacy for his family and kids. The differences in their point of view are the source of family contention. This is further exacerbated when Monica’s mother Soon-Ja (Youn Yuh-jung) moves in to help out.
Raised on a farm in rural Arkansas, Isaac Chung’s personal life lends to the nuanced story on the screen. The disagreements between Jacob and Monica about finances and the future feel realistic to typical family dynamics. Yeun and Ye-ri’s performances keep the tense energy flowing, making their interactions kinetic. But Minari is more than drama: there’s genuine hilariousness sprinkled in. The young son David’s (Alan Kim) relationship with Soon-Ja brings the most laughs. Soon-Ja is a not typical grandmother (in David’s words) with her vulgar language. Pairing her crude reactions to David’s mistrust brings a necessary light-heartedness to the film.
The American Dream is what you make it
The beauty of Minari comes from how rooted it is in Korean culture while being a story of chasing the American dream. The common misconception around immigrants is that they want or have to assimilate to white American standards. In reality, the American dream is building a legacy for you and yours in your own cultural way. The Yi’s achieve this by exclusively speaking their native language at home and doing farm business with fellow Korean merchants. It reminds us that our dreams can be fulfilled without aspiring to white norms.
Minari grows, family heals
Jacob and David return to the minari that Soon-Ja has planted at the end. It’s beautiful in its hues of green, standing tall and proud. Minari reflects the resilience of the plant by highlighting the Yi’s resilience in the face of turmoil. Tender, lighthearted, and emotional, the film showcases that what makes a family isn’t the legacy - it’s the people building that legacy.
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