As a standout at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival and a probable Oscar nominee this year, it’s tempting to make grand statements about “Minari,” a touching drama tracking the emotional journey of a Korean immigrant family in Arkansas.
But “Minari,” which premieres in theaters Friday before making its streaming debut on Feb. 26, is not in the business of telling the quintessential American immigrant story, or passing judgment on the rural Southern community that the Yi family settles into. Instead, director Lee Isaac Chung invites you into the world of this American family, with all of its accompanying complications and quirks.
Most viewers will be familiar with the central premise: Steven Yeun’s Jacob, tired of menial work in California, moves his brood to rural Arkansas with big dreams of starting a farm and leaving a legacy for his young children, David and Anne. His wife Monica, played by Han Ye-ri, is skeptical of their prospects, openly wondering if her marriage can survive as the Yis struggle with finances and social isolation.
The tried-and-true plot line is made exceptional through Chung’s attention to detail in portraying how each generation reacts to their nearly all-white community during the Reagan era. Grandmother Soon-ja, played by celebrated Korean actor Youn Yuh-jung, is brought from South Korea to help Monica and Jacob take care of the kids.
As the comedic relief and soul of the film, Soon-ja worries little about appearing like a “typical” grandma as she curses, plays cards and enjoys TV wrestling. Meanwhile, David and Anne befriend kids who have likely never seen an Asian person in their lives, and Jacob finds himself with an unlikely companion: Paul, a Korean War veteran and social outcast due to his unconventional Christian beliefs and unwashed clothes.
“Minari,” with its depiction of the demands of agricultural life, doesn’t delve into social commentary or the political forces outside of the family’s control. Some viewers, like Japanese-American farmer Nikiko Masumoto, hoped for more exploration of how Asian immigrants interacted with issues of race in Arkansas’ segregated landscape.
“The level of threat that I felt on behalf of the Yi family was quite striking to me,” Masumoto said during a virtual panel with the Asian American Farmers Alliance. “If there was a longing I had, I was curious to think more deeply about the multiplicity of race … Asians are positioned differently as opposed to Black Americans who are probably in the same region.”
Chung, whose own family settled in Arkansas after immigrating from Korea, is far more interested in the Yi’s interior lives, especially when it comes to the limits of family obligation and the kind of love that is built through generations of hardship and quiet acts of devotion.
In that way, Chung’s story is reminiscent of another slow-moving film: 2016’s “Loving,” which shines its light on real-life couple Richard and Mildred Loving as they fight to overturn laws banning interracial marriage in the 1960s. Instead of valorizing these groundbreaking families, the two movies seek to depict their lives as they were: difficult, beautiful and worth celebrating.
There is the sense, too, that “Minari” is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the untold stories of immigrants, and especially of Asian-Americans. Amid calls for more representations of Asians on screen have been outcries against the rise of anti-Asian hate during the COVID-19 pandemic, including several attacks on elderly people in California this year.
“Sometimes I wonder if the Asian-American experience is what it’s like when you’re thinking about everyone else, but nobody else is thinking about you,” Yeun recently told The New York Times, echoing the sentiment of many in the fastest growing demographic group in the U.S.
The next generation of Asian-American artists will face no lack of obstacles in bringing their creations to the mainstream. In December, the Golden Globes took heat for classifying “Minari” as a “foreign-language film,” effectively excluding it from Best Picture categories because more than 50 percent of the dialogue is not in English. (Chung and the production companies behind the film are American).
Regardless of which awards the picture collects, “Minari” shows what is possible when filmmakers make invisible struggles of immigrant life visible to a broader audience, who will see themselves in this story no matter where they’re from.
“I don’t see it as a movie about Asian farming,” said David Paeng, a Korean-American farmer in California. “It’s just a story about an immigrant family coming in and trying to make a living. I would imagine it’s not their first choice, and nobody would want to do that, but they have to do that to survive.”
Minari will play at the Grand Berry Theater in Fort Worth and Cinemark Grapevine starting Friday. Tickets to online screenings are available through A24..