movie review

In Minari, a Korean Family Tries to Make a Home in the Heartland

Steven Yeun heads up a deceptively gentle immigrant drama set in rural Arkansas in the ’80s. Photo: Josh Ethan Johnson/A24

The farm that the Yi family moves to at the beginning of Minari isn’t really much of a farm yet, just some cleared acreage in the Ozarks with a trailer perched on cinder blocks in the middle of it. There aren’t even stairs up to the door of this new home, and when Jacob (Steven Yeun) tries to give his wife, Monica (Han Ye-ri), a hand up that first giant step, she disbelievingly shrugs him off and clambers up to examine the dark interior herself. The outside, at least, is gorgeous, the sun coming through the trees lining the nearby stream, and the land wild with flowering grasses and insects. Jacob compares it to the Garden of Eden, though of the two of them, it’s Monica who’s the believer. Jacob prefers to put his faith in himself, and it’s his fantasy of agricultural independence that the Yis have come to Arkansas to chase. In an effort to win over his skeptical spouse, he digs his hand into the earth, and shows her a handful of what he’s staked their family’s fortunes on. “Look at the color,” he says. “This is why I picked this place. This is the best dirt in America.”

He’s not the first character onscreen to make this gesture, and to present the soil itself as an unspoiled opportunity just there to be grabbed by anyone willing to put in the work (so long as the history of prior inhabitants of the region can be conveniently ignored). It’s not one that’s often, if ever, seen being made by a Korean American man, though. Minari, a still-surfaced family drama that packs some serious fathomage, is drawn from writer-director Lee Isaac Chung’s childhood, when his family moved to Arkansas in the 1980s to make a go of farming. In one sense, the film is an alternate, rural take on a familiar immigrant narrative, with the Yis and their children sacrificing and struggling to carve out lives for themselves in new territory. But in that early image of Jacob seizing the land as though he were a homesteading pioneer, and not a chicken sexer sick of working for the man, is something more dissonant. It’s not just a piece of the American Dream that the character vies for; it’s his own slice of the heartland.

But that heartland isn’t actually a place of set borders and unbroken expanses. It’s an idea that we remain uncomfortably beholden to as a country, one that summons up a mental montage of fields and livestock, hearths and churches, and, somehow, a more authentic American experience. Two people can live in the same area and only one of them might be held up as representative of the heartland, and race remains the largest factor in that perception. Minari is marked by a never-resolved tension regarding how the Yis fit not only into America but also into a particular kind of Americanness they exist in parallel to and aren’t entirely decided about. This is especially true for Jacob, who holds himself apart from the (as far as we see, entirely white) locals, taking pride in being above their superstitions. “Korean people use their heads, okay?” he tells 7-year-old son David (Alan S. Kim) after sending away a dowser who came to pitch his services. And yet, in his obsession with becoming a self-made man is a buy-in to the country’s implicit promise. As the banker who gives him a loan while talking up Reagan’s support of agriculture says, “Farming these days, you gotta go big or go home; that’s just how it is.”

Chung is a patient filmmaker who works in small sequences that accrue imperceptibly into something grander. Minari is filled with moments — like the one in which older daughter Anne (Noel Cho) earnestly describes Mountain Dew as “water from the mountains” that’s “good for your health” — that have the grain of a memory transferred directly to screen. His tonal restraint can be a strength and a weakness. When Monica leaves $100 in the collection plate at a church she doesn’t intend to go back to, the beat is so emotionally submerged as to feel brushed over. Then again, in a less delicate enterprise, Monica’s war-widowed mother, Soonja (Youn Yuh-jung, a scene-stealing standout in an already strong cast), would come across as a wacky stock character. Instead, she becomes another complicating factor in the netherworld the family occupies, a burst of unmitigated Old Country that David, who has to start sharing his room with the older woman, resents. “Grandma smells like Korea!” he howls, though what really irks him is how little she fits with his Western-shaped ideas about how a grandmother should behave.

Soonja doesn’t bake cookies, but she does swear, loves gambling, and becomes an instant fan of pro wrestling on television. She also proves herself able to handle being uprooted better than any of the other characters, who are caught between yearning for the diasporic community they left behind, a determination to demonstrate their own self-sufficiency, and weathering non-malicious microaggressions in order to make friends. Minari doesn’t at all set out to generalize about the immigrant experience, but in all the careful texture of its details, it gets at the disorienting loneliness that can be such a key part of it anyway. The film is deceptively gentle, but that only makes its final crescendo more devastating, a burst of bittersweet emotion that unites the characters, not through a shared understanding, but through loss. “Getting hurt is all part of growing up,” Soonja says at one point, but Minari closes on a note that suggests it can also be what holds a family together. Its vision of home is ultimately not about belonging to a plot of land or a particular community, but about what it means to belong to one another.

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In Minari, a Korean Family Makes a Home in the Heartland