A Family Grows Despite All Odds in “Minari”

A Korean family moves to the Ozarks to build their dream and steal our hearts.

As Oscar season approaches, I always find myself trying to catch up with nominated titles I may have missed or haven’t yet had a chance to see. Minari was the latter of these two. I’d heard about it long before I was actually able to stream it anywhere, and when critics began singing its praises, I was pretty sure my suspicions about it were right. The performances across the board in this film are so outstanding that it’s hard for me to say who was my favorite, but having been a fan of Steven Yeun for many years, I’m elated with his nomination for Best Actor for his role in the movie.

Minari is about a Korean family who move to rural Arkansas in the 1980s to pursue the father’s dream of owning a farm. It’s clear from the start that this is a film about sticking together as a family through it all—the good and the bad—no matter what may come, which we see isn’t especially easy given the circumstances. What struck me right away was how earnest these characters are. Jacob Yi (Steven Yeun) is chasing the American dream. He cares deeply for his family, and he wants to secure their future. More than that, however, he longs for them to see him succeed at something he cares about. Hell-bent on leaving behind the monotony of factory work and building something of his own, he goes to great lengths to carve out his piece of the pie, at times willing to sacrifice more than perhaps he should.

His wife, Monica, while reserved, is strong willed. She isn’t afraid to speak her mind but she’s constantly torn between remaining loyal to her husband and doing what she thinks is best for her children. She’s complex and concealed at the same time; the silent sufferer. She loves and respects Jacob and his dreams, but how long can she hold on when their new life proves less and less sustainable?

Their children, Anne and David, are just a few years apart in age, Anne being the older of the two. David has a heart condition and must be careful about over exerting himself. This doesn’t detract from his playful and mischievous personality, however, which to me, was one of the most delightful things about this film. Anne is poised for her age, responsible, and caring. She’s the more obedient and mature of the two. The grandmother, Soon-ja, who comes to live with the family later on to help care for the children, isn’t a typical grandmother—she’s blunt and sarcastic, uses profanity, and doesn’t always play by the rules—but her love for her family is ever present.

There’s a dichotomy in this film where luck is concerned, as the Yis are constantly on the verge of making it and losing everything. At the start, I felt hopeful for them, even though it’s clear they’ve had to sacrifice a lot already to get to where they are. They’ve given up a comfortable life in California to pursue an independent one in Arkansas, which they must build from the ground up. Starting a farm is difficult and risky enough when money is no object, but for Jacob and Monica, whose only income comes from a menial job chicken sexing, it proves to be a serious gamble. Monica is reluctant to share Jacob’s enthusiasm for the farm and isn’t blind to the fact that it’s bleeding them dry. It’s plain to see how much she cares for Jacob, but she spends the majority of the film at odds with his choices, which puts further strain on the family. They’re already living in close quarters—five people in a stationary mobile home—so the kids often witness their parents fighting.

What’s more, is how isolated they are — the nearest big city is an hour away by car— and how ignorant many of the residents are about Koreans (cue the microaggression). While they do their best to fit into the community, their ‘outsider’ status can’t be helped. Anne and David speak fluent English, having grown up in America, however, Jacob and Monica are not as well-versed. The movie doesn’t portray this as a huge issue — they get by okay — but it does highlight their limitations, especially when it comes to connecting with any non-Koreans, which in rural Arkansas is nearly everyone. The only real friend they make throughout the film is a local eccentric named Paul who, after selling Jacob a tractor, comes to work on the farm himself. Paul proves to be a positive force in their lives if only because he seems to truly want to see them succeed.

The scenes between David and his Grandmother were my favorite. Being born in America, his reluctance to accept Soon-ja as his grandmother is indicative of his multicultural upbringing. He’s never been to Korea, and other than his parents, has no real connection to the culture, so when Soon-ja comes to live with them, she smells weird, acts strange, and isn’t a ‘real grandmother’ in David’s limited view of the world. Soon-ja’s ability to be patient, encouraging, and protective of David without having ever met him prior to her visit, shows us how deep family runs for the Yis.

They butt heads and engage in comical ‘combat’ with each other throughout the film as David pushes her buttons and tests his boundaries, but he ultimately comes to appreciate Soon-ja and her role in his life by the end. Without giving too much away, I never thought I’d see a film handle someone unintentionally drinking urine as thoughtfully as Minari does, but here we are. Something to look forward to, if you haven’t seen the film.

Finally, I was slightly discouraged by the way the last third of the film unfolds because if you’re like, you’re rooting for this family. We want them to succeed and achieve the life they’re after, and that’s regrettably not what we get. Instead, we witness a series of unfortunate events one right after the next, and we wonder when they’ll ever catch a break. What we do get by the end is perhaps what the entire film has been about all along. We see the resilience of a family who chooses each other first. We’re certainly hopeful that luck will find them one day, that their hard work and sacrifice will pay off, and they’ll make it, but we can rest easy assured that they are never alone.

Minari is currently streaming on Apple TV, Amazon Prime, and Google Play.

Just another movie-obsessed writer with a lot of opinions.