Movie review: Minari

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Nicolas Valladolid ’23

A car door opens. A U-Haul pulls onto the lawn. A Korean Family steps onto the Arkansas soil to start their new lives as farmers in a foreign-feeling rural society. Minari, directed by Lee Isaac Chung, tells a captivating story in a way that authentically shows the harsh reality of achieving the American Dream. But it also shows the resilience of immigrants.

The film follows a Korean first-generation family in their efforts to try to fit in and succeed in America. The father and mother, Jacob and Monica, originally came to California from Korea to work in the poultry business. Eventually, they decide to move with their children, Ann and David, to try to start a small farm that makes Korean vegetables in the middle of Arkansas. Their journey to success is full of constant struggle. The father is always taking on debt to try to pay for vital equipment like tractors and tools, and the well that they use to water their crops goes dry, causing the family to tap into the municipal water supply, bringing the father more into debt. In addition to this, the family finds themselves in constant conflict with rural Arkansas and American society. When the family first goes to the local church, the pastor asks if anyone in the congregation is new. The embarrassed family does not stand up; then, everyone turns around and looks at them, who look like no one else in the otherwise homogeneous and tightly-knit  community.  Even after church, the family feels separate from everyone else as the members of the community ask them questions in a very demeaning but ignorant tone. When the harvest finally arrives, the family feels relieved but is unaware that there is still much struggle to follow. 

Jacob, Steven Yuen offers a complex but authentic portrayal of an immigrant father. He is stern but loving, very hardworking, and although he does not show it often, does everything to make sure his children have a better life than he had. For example, the reason why he buys a farm, moves to Arkansas, and works so hard is so he can be an example of success for his kids and so he and his family can have something of their own. In one scene, Monica and Jacob are arguing about financial issues. Jacob admits that the reason he took on so much debt is so the kids have a better life and so they can be a model of success. In addition to this, the way Jacob is portrayed shows a level of internal conflict between his Korean side and his will to be more American. The way he walks and dresses and his general demeanor make him look as if he is trying to be like a rural American. For example, he always wears a plaid button- up shirt and jeans. Despite the way he acts, he almost exclusively speaks in Korean, showing that he is not fully Americanized. Jacob’s struggles show the perseverance it takes to succeed in America and the resilience and hardworking nature of immigrants. Jacob also acts as a microcosm for what most immigrants strive for, a root in America, something that they own, which, in Jacob’s case, is a farm. 

The family’s plight also serves as a criticism of the misconceptions of America. Jacob and Monica, like many others, thought America was a land of opportunity: just living there would bring instant prosperity. Monica in particular falls victim to this mindset. When her mother visits the family, Monica confides in her that living on a farm and in debt is not the life she imagined she would be living in America. Monica comes from a well-off family in urban Korea and is not accustomed to a more rural life. Jacob and Monica have to work relentlessly to make enough money to keep the water running. Their struggles scatter dirt on the glamorous image of America’s prosperity and show the harsh reality that some people work very hard to achieve very little. Even after their crop comes in and they find a buyer for their produce, the family still finds themselves deeply in debt and have to prepare for the planting season. 

In addition to well- rounded characters and a deep story, Minari’s cinematography is amazing. Lee Isaac Chung contrasts the dull scenes of tension within the family with free and bright scenes in nature. For example, the scene where Jacob is asking for a loan at a dull- looking bank is immediately paired with a scene where Jacob is unloading a tractor in the midst of a blue sky and hallucinatingly green grass. When Chung wants the audience to feel tension, we feel tension, and when he wants the tension to be released, it happens. Every shot feels very deliberate and everything feels masterfully placed. There was not a single scene or shot that felt out of place. 

Minari is the name of a Korean vegetable that can grow in any climate and soil. Just like the vegetable it is named after, Minari tells an amazing story about a resilient family trying to root themselves in a new country. Minari, through a very personal tale, makes one really appreciate what all of our ancestors had to do to live here and what people continue to do to find success in America.