The plant known in Korean as minari—which is also known in English as Chinese celery, Japanese parsley, Indian pennywort, or Javan dropwort—isn’t native to the Americas. But it grows well in American soil when the family in Lee Isaac Chung’s new film plants its seeds in a riverbank far from the ramshackle trailer they now call home. The area is also home to poisonous snakes, but the minari flourishes. As it does, one character explains that minari is eaten by beggars and millionaires alike—it’s for everyone. The immigrant experience Chung captures in Minari is similarly broadly relatable, but the specificity of planting minari hints at the specificity of Chung’s story, which is based on his own experience growing up in Arkansas.
Alan S. Kim makes his film debut as 7-year-old David, whose parents, Jacob (Steven Yeun) and Monica Yi (Han Ye-ri), Korean immigrants who uproot David and his older sister, Anne (Noel Cho), from their home in California to start a new life in Arkansas. Jacob and Monica have spent the past decade sorting male and female chicks at a chicken hatchery, but Jacob always dreamed of starting his own farm. That the land drove the previous would-be farmer who owned it to suicide doesn’t deter him. As a compromise with Monica, who misses living in a city and is shocked when she discovers that their new home has wheels, they invite Monica’s mother Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung) to fly in from South Korea to live with them. David, who now has to share his room with Soon-ja, is immediately resentful, especially as she doesn’t fit into his American idea of what a grandmother should be. She doesn’t bake cookies, preferring to trash-talk her grandchildren while she demolishes them in the Korean card came Go-Stop and gives off a “Korean smell.”
Broadly, Minari is about the American Dream, but David is ultimately the film’s main character. Through his eyes, we sympathize both with Jacob’s ambitions and with Monica’s dismay that he continues to put the farm’s success over the well-being of his family. On top of that, the whole family is struggling with assimilation, not just within the very white town they’ve found themselves in, but in David’s case, within his own identity as a Korean American.
Just as David struggles with the Korean-ness of his grandmother, he also struggles with the whiteness of the community around him. Just like any other kid, he loves drinking Mountain Dew, watching TV, and running around in his cowboy boots. But when his family first attends the local church, they’re immediately outliers, with another boy openly staring at him and, later, asking, “Why is your face so flat?” Anne, meanwhile, is confronted by a girl who asks Anne to stop her if she happens to say anything in Korean—then promptly launches into a string of “ching chong chang” gibberish. Neither child seems to understand how hurtful their words are—they’re both genuinely curious about their new would-be pals—but they sting nevertheless. The comments directed at David and Anne’s parents—the church ladies repeatedly call Monica “so cute”—are less obviously painful, but they’re yet another example of the sorts of conversations that prevent the Yis from feeling as home as they’d like to be.
Chung, who also wrote the film, fills it with these kinds of precise details. When Soon-ja first arrives, Monica can’t help but cry when she sees the gochugaru (Korean red chili flakes) and myulchi (stir-fried anchovies) her mother has brought for her. When an emergency occurs at home, lacking a telephone to call for help, Anne and David get dressed to go to church, with Anne sneaking out of their pew in the middle of a sermon to use the church’s phone. This film’s careful attention to these particularities speaks to Chung’s prodigious talent as a writer and director and, on a grander scale, to how quickly the world of film seems to be developing when it comes to normalizing the experiences of marginalized people on screen.
Minari is a Korean American story, starring Korean and Korean American actors, that makes Korean-ness a natural part of the story without ever going out of its way to point it out. The only time race is really overtly mentioned is in that first church scene. In the wake of Crazy Rich Asians, which had an unfair burden placed upon it to represent all Asian Americans given the lack of other representation in mainstream Hollywood movies, Minari’s individuality is a breath of fresh air, especially given the way the discourse surrounding Crazy Rich Asians further perpetuated the misconception that the Asian American experience is monolithic (the film was referred to by some as “the Asian Black Panther”). Granted, even now, the most frequent points of comparison for Minari have been the works of the Japanese directors Hirokazu Kore-eda and Yasujirō Ozu, as if there were no Korean or Korean American directors who have also made powerful art out of simple family stories (and as if all films made by filmmakers of Asian descent should be compared with the work of other Asians). But the comparisons speak to the limited exposure that less traditional (less white) narratives have had in the West. Minari makes the case for the door to open a little wider, and for Chung to become a reference point for other artists to come.
The film also opens the door for Alan Kim, who, in his debut performance, pulls off the near-impossible feat of being a convincing kid without seeming too calculating or too distracted. The stand-out performance of the movie, however, is Youn’s. As Soon-ja, she perfectly bridges the two stories present in the film—Jacob’s and David’s—and grounds the few elements of the movie that feel a little less real and a little more melodramatic.
Though the pandemic has thrown the movie industry into disarray and pushed several planned 2020 releases into 2021 or the indefinite future, it has still been a year full of wonderful films, among which Minari lands near, if not at, the top of the pile. Thoughtfully directed, vividly written, and beautifully acted, it’s a hopeful film, universally appealing despite—or perhaps because of—just how very Korean American it is.