By: Lester Leong, SFU Student
Since its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival back in early 2020, Minari has garnered much critical acclaim and an ever-growing list of accolades. Although its most recent win at the Golden Globes was arbitrarily and poorly relegated to the Foreign Language category, it has since been nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director for Lee Isaac Chung. Steven Yeun even made history by being the first Asian American to be nominated for Best Actor. Indeed, Minari is breaking new ground in Hollywood.
A semi-autobiographical account of director Lee Isaac Chung’s childhood, Minari tells the story of a Korean American family, the Yis, who relocate from California to rural Arkansas to pursue a better life. The father, played by Steven Yeun, wants a bright future for his children. So, he decides to start a farm, where he can sell the crops he grows, while also sexing baby chicks on the side to make ends meet.
Despite the Golden Globe placement, Minari is very much an American film. The story centers on a Korean American family and the pursuit of the American dream is one of the main themes. The allure of that concept prompts the father, Jacob, to start his own business; it also causes him to ignore the valid concerns of his wife, Monica, about the potential hardships of doing so. As Jacob’s hopeful optimism clashes with Monica’s more realistic point of view, a rift occurs in their marriage. Meanwhile, their two children learn to adjust to their new home while also spending time with their maternal grandmother, who has moved from South Korea to be with them.
Another huge theme is the resiliency of immigrants in the face of hardships. Experiencing countless setbacks when creating and maintaining his farm, the odds are stacked against Jacob. However, he still comes up with ingenious solutions. In a very telling scene, he rejects the services of a water diviner because it is expensive. Using common sense about nature, Jacob finds a good spot to dig a well by himself instead. This do-it-yourself mindset eventually leads to a huge setback, but Jacob learns from this experience and adapts to the circumstances.
Minari, at its core, is about the Asian American experience. It’s about learning to reconcile two contrasting cultures within oneself: the individualistic culture of the West and the collectivistic culture of the East. This theme is most evident in the subplot of David, the youngest member of the family, learning to accept his grandmother, Soon-ja, for who she is. Having never met her, he is initially avoidant of Soon-ja because she doesn’t live up to his more Western expectations of what a grandmother should be (e.g. baking cookies, not swearing). David even complains that Soon-ja “smells like Korea.” However, as time goes on, David discovers that Soon-ja still very much loves her grandchildren, and finally begins to warm up to her.
With exquisite cinematography and a beautiful musical score, Minari is a compassionate exploration of the immigrant experience and the blind optimism that comes along with it. This is the kind of film that the world desperately needs right now. The hope it inspires for the future is very therapeutic and it’s one of the best films that 2020 had to offer.