‘Minari’: An absorbing and authentic American immigrant story

“Minari” – “Nothing’s gonna turn us back now.  Straight ahead and on the track now.  We’re gonna make our dreams come true.  Doing it our way.”  – “Making Our Dreams Come True” by Cyndi Grecco, the “Laverne & Shirley” (1976 – 1983) theme song

“And there ain’t no nothing we can’t love each other through.  What would we do baby, without us?”  – “Without Us” by Johnny Mathis and Deniece Williams, the “Family Ties” (1982 – 1989) theme song

Writer/director Lee Isaac Chung’s “Minari” is an immigrant story about a Korean family attempting to make it in the United States, and more specifically, a small town in Arkansas during the 1980s.

In fact, this is his story, or a small portion of it.

During a January 2020 Sundance Film Festival Q&A, Chung opens up, “I just (wanted) to throw it all out there and go for the film that I’ve always wanted to make.”

He adds, “The exercise I went through was to start writing down memories from growing up in Arkansas.”

Chung soon realized that the memories he jotted down surrounded a specific period, when he was about 6-years-old, his daughter’s age now.

In “Minari”, Chung is a little boy named David (Alan S. Kim), and his father Jacob Yi (Steven Yeun) whisks the family to The Natural State to start a farm and grow Korean vegetables.  Jacob bets on a reaching a niche market through his know-how and sweat with – hopefully – no blood or tears.  He makes a major-league gamble.  Jacob risks everything, and his wife Monica (Yeri Han) is quite frustrated with this move.  Not only does he change careers, from a day laborer (he separates baby chicks by placing males and females in different boxes) to a farmer, but he relocates their household to a suspect trailer in the middle of nowhere.  Their new town in the deep south is complete with stifling heat and a local populous that possibly has only seen Koreans on  “M*A*S*H*” (1972 – 1983) reruns.

Jacob, however, is bound and determined to see his farm succeed, so his family can reach the  American dream.  Keep in mind that financial stability and family-friction over money are inversely related, especially when the couple in question has struggled with solvency and long working hours for years.  This dynamic – along with newcomers attempting to fit in with a settled, rural community – are the central focal points in this absorbing American immigrant tale, maybe the best one that this critic has seen since director/co-writer Jim Sheridan’s “In America” (2002), about an Irish family moving to New York City, during the 1980s as well.

Due to their Korean roots, the Yi family physically stands out in their new environment, and Chung makes select, delicate choices to highlight local reactions to their new neighbors.  One might brace for the worst, but Chung gets his point across without ugly culture clashes.  For the most part, others offer support to the Yis, but hesitations and second looks do exist, and the fact that Jacob’s farmhand (Will Patton) doubles as a village outcast doesn’t go unnoticed.  Still, Chung gets the tone right here, so we aren’t distracted from the film’s primary driver:  getting the farm up and running.

Almost everything hinges on the farm.  For Jacob, it’s a massive uphill climb, figuratively, not literally.  The land is as flat as a pancake prepared by a steamroller, but Jacob soon discovers that finding water becomes his most daunting problem, and note that this dramatic hitch also haunted the farmers before him.  Since their home sits on his workplace, Jacob doesn’t have the luxury of leaving his problems at the office.  Still, he doesn’t take out his frustrations on Monica and the kids – David (Kim) and Anne (Noel Cho) – but they feel his weariness and the marriage strain.

Rather than solely focus on gloom and doom, the kids are regular sources of wonder, smiles, and mischief.  When Monica’s mom – played wonderfully by Yuh-jung Youn in an Oscar-worthy performance – arrives to live with the four, she inadvertently becomes a source of contention for just one, young David.  Grandma (Youn) has the best intentions, but her frank discourse, foreign quirks, and manners best suited for the front row at a WWE event or midnight trips to the casino aggravate David and his limited world views.  David fits a bit of a one-way-war with Grandma, and her refreshing, heartwarming reactions and their rapport help distract us from Jacob’s and Monica’s individual and collective issues.

Many distinct relationships within this family of (now) five bask and twist with fluidity, and since their security is tied to the Arkansas ranch, the cinematic stakes are high.  Through Chung’s rich characters and grounded (pardon the pun) script – based on his recollections – we, as an audience, juggle the macro and micro connections simultaneously, as the Yis’ fate becomes ours too over the 115-minute runtime…and beyond.

Hey, they’re trying to make their dreams come true, but please don’t continue marching without us.

⭐⭐⭐ 1/2  out of  ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Image and Trailer credits:  A24

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