In ‘Minari,’ the Immigrant Experience Comes Alive With Wistful Resonance

The family in Lee Isaac Chung’s entrancing “Minari” undergo many of the classic moments we associate with stories of the immigrant experience. Unlike many other movies however, their dreams are so down to earth they could be relatable to anyone anywhere. They have left South Korea for the farmlands of the United States, seeking a better life, but facing the immense task of building up out of nothing. Chung’s narrative, told with a poetic spirit, isn’t about the fear of not being able to stay in a new place. Instead, this is a film about attempting to make the soil you claim grow while clinging to the hope the results will be worth it, all the while dealing with free-spirited grandmothers from the country you left behind.

Jacob (Steven Yeun) and Monica (Yeri Han), a young married couple in the 1980s, first make a living as chicken sexers in California. For city readers that means they would separate baby chickens by gender. They decide to move with their two children, six-year-old David (Alan S. Kim) and older sister Anne (Noel Cho), to rural Arkansas. Jacob’s hope is to start a farm specializing in produce for the Korean food market. With 50 acres he’s sure it can happen. But nothing is that easy and Jacob is soon making the effort, full of obstacles, to cultivate his acres while Monica works at yet another chicken farm. To help with the kids they bring over Monica’s mother, Soonja (Yuh-jung Youn), who goes through a bit of funny culture clash with the very Americanized David and Anne. 

It is Yuh-jung Youn’s grandmother Soonja who becomes the endearing thread that unifies the whole story. Youn, a veteran of Korean and U.S. screens, turns Soonja into a walking reminder of the country Jacob and Monica left, bringing her practical sense for things and cultural foods (which David in particular can’t deal with). She lived through the Korean War and has enough life experience to not panic where Jacob and Monica would. “I feel it’s very genuine and very real,” Youn told Entertainment Voice. “I asked Lee, ‘is this your story?’ And he said, ‘it is.’ So I said, ‘ok then, I’ll do it.’” Chung’s screenplay does have the air of Proustian biography. With cinematographer Lachlan Milne and composer Emile Mosseri, Chung makes rural Arkansas feel spacious and lyrical, giving nature its own character or presence. After all, for Jacob it is the earth itself that will give his family prosperity. He shows David how to track for water and finds surprisingly efficient help from Paul (Will Patton), a destitute but good soul with a green thumb, prone to speaking in tongues like a Pentecostal. “Isaac is very thoughtful and caring,” said Youn about Chung as a director. “I won’t forget him. He’s an old soul. Sometimes in Asian culture when you’re a young director, the older cast might be think, ‘oh he doesn’t know what he’s doing.’ But with Isaac it wasn’t like that at all.”

Chung’s imagining of the film is so vivid that the family and each individual become completely familiar by the end, like old neighbors. As Jacob tries to build his farm, all around his family Chung builds a small, compact world. On TV they watch diaspora Korean shows, while at church everyone is welcoming but also clueless (the women think Monica is as cute as a doll), a white kid looks at David as if he’s from some other planet, before befriending him. There isn’t racist despair in this film, but sheer everyday struggles. Monica starts to feel impatience with the family’s sense of stability or resources. When Jacob shows her and the kids the trailer that will be her home she can’t hide the disappointment. Grandma keeps reminding them of how in love they were back in Korea, but it’s hard to keep the romantic flame burning when you have no finances and a store that agrees to buy your crop today might back out tomorrow. 

For the kids the experience becomes a lesson in maturing while learning to love their grandmother. She may come from a country they’ve never been to, and makes David eat food and a particular drink he cannot stand (to the point of slyly replacing it later with a shocking substitute), but she provides an openness, even carefree attitude, Jacob and Monica can’t afford to provide. “I thought about my own grandmother during the shoot,” said Youn. “She passed away when I was ten. I didn’t like her at all, like David at first. The stupid reason was that because of the war many people were not hygienic. There just wasn’t enough city water and she was always saving water. So to me she was dirty. That’s the reason I didn’t like her. Thinking back to that, my heart always breaks. We are all stupid sometimes in this way.”

As with many of the best films about lives being lived, “Minar” has a feel of cycles. Eventually there will be bouts with disease or Monica might feel she can’t take it anymore in these struggles. For the immigrant the drive becomes harder because it is about finding stability while planting new roots. Chung could have easily gone for the cliché romantic ending, instead he settles for something more subtle and powerful. If we are so lucky life continues and we keep learning. For Youn, “Minari” has a universal force in what it says to all audiences. “We are all immigrants. Sometimes because someone comes from another country we look at them differently or treat them differently. But you don’t get a special power because you were born in a specific place. We all could be immigrants tomorrow. We are all human beings, everyone comes from a previous generation that made sacrifices. There’s a scene where Soonja chews a chestnut and then hands it to the grandson, I thought it was just a Korean thing. It turns out some Hispanic grandmothers do it too. In the end, we’re all human beings. Let’s love each other.”

Minari” releases Feb. 12 in select cities and Feb. 26 on VOD.