Oftentimes, in my own experience, the importance of racial representation is not fully recognized until we see diverse community’s stories on-screen.
Lee Isaac Chung’s new film “Minari” serves as a guide for the promising possibilities in cinematic storytelling, presenting Asian-American’s long overdue on-screen representation. Offering a classic immigrant story, “Minari” highlights specific details of the community’s struggle to create a better life.
Premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, the film stars the Korean-American Yi family, who moves from California to pursue a life in rural Arkansas. Steven Yeun, best known for his role in “The Walking Dead,” perfectly portrays Jacob Yi as a dreamer who uproots his wife Monica, played by Yeri Han. The couple and their two kids – Anne, played by Noel Cho, and her younger brother David, played by Alan S. Kim – pursue Yi’s dream of gaining financial independence through farming.
Set in the ‘80s, Yeun portrays passionate Yi as he desperately holds onto his dream of growing Korean produce on so-called infertile land. While Yi adapts to the American farmer lifestyle, Monica seems torn, revealing she would rather live in the city than in the couple’s trailer located in the middle of nowhere.
Yeun’s desire to achieve the American dream puts a strain on his relationship with Monica and their shared ambitions as a couple and what is best for their children. Eventually, Monica’s mother, played by Youn Yuh-jung, moves in with the family, bringing along with her Korean goods which include the seeds of minari.
As an Asian American, I thought the film highlighted topics those who grow up in a monoculture do not experience, or even think about. We watch the couple navigate difficult decisions like where the family should go to church or if they should go at all, how open they should be with sharing their culture with others and if they should move somewhere with a larger Korean population.
Chung’s storytelling ability is strong, and his execution of the character’s interactions is precise, yet not overdone. While “Minari” is inspired by Chung’s personal family story, the film’s real-life narrative does not feel drawn out or overly dramatic.
Chung captures several candid moments of casual acts of racism — that are not so casual on the receiving end. While David is approached by a young white boy who asks “why is your face so flat?,” Anne is approached by a young white girl who tries speaking words that “sound Korean” and tells Anne to stop once she says something that’s actually a Korean word. Seemingly innocent, this idea of exoticism is a two-way mirror, for both sides.
While Yeun’s performance of the bittersweet Yi has received Best Actor nods from the Screen Actors Guild and the Critics Choice, the real star of the show is Yuh-Jung, winning the audience’s affection with her strangeness and adorable grandmotherly role. I found Kim and Cho to be two of the cutest kids I have ever laid eyes on, and their acting abilities are up to par with the adult actors.
In December the Hollywood Foreign Press Association defined “Minari” as a foreign language film. Yet, the film is set in America, stars an American lead actor, written and directed by an American filmmaker and produced by an American company. This decision disqualified it from the Best Picture award at the Golden Globes and sparked a backlash – as it should – from the Asian-American community.
Minari’s use of the Korean language and Korean actors tenderly reminds us of the Korean American experience and the American dream. Chung’s small details create a nostalgic story that showcases the importance of finding home in the ones around us, rather than in the land or community we live in.
Traveler’s Score: A+
Rotten Tomatoes: 97%