A Korean family moves to Arkansas to start a completely new life in a film wrought with thematic elements exploring faith, judgment, and the American Dream.
Jacob Yi, a South Korean immigrant with ambitious plans, hopes to corner the market on Korean produce by building a farm that can supplant importers supplying Dallas stores with inferior goods.
Having uprooted his family from their comfortable but meager home in California, Jacob has sunk the family’s savings into a trailer and a plot of land with enough money to carry them during the growing months. Making things a little more precarious — his son David has a heart problem requiring expensive surgery.
Jacob’s plan sounds great on paper, and he faces the intense amount of pressure with a mix of arrogance and bravado. In his mind, the plan cannot fail because he is smarter than everyone else. After he spurns a dowser who offers to help him find a water source for his crops, Jacob prides himself on discovering his own water using his deductive reasoning.
Jacob’s dreams for their future are tempered by Monica (Ye-ri Han), his doubting yet dutiful wife, who takes up a job sexing chicks. Monica has a hard time acclimating to her new surroundings — she’s inefficient at her job and misses the social surroundings of her church and friends. To make things easier for Monica, her mother Soon-ja (Yoon Yuh-jung) arrives to help take care of the children.
Through a series of compromises and circumstances, the family bends and then breaks, until a disaster strips them of everything but themselves and brings them back to the very foundation that mattered the most.
The overarching basis for the film is found in its namesake. Minari is named after a Korean water celery that — according to the film’s director — “Will grow very strongly in its second season, after it’s died and come back.” It’s a plant that doesn’t require much in terms of maintenance and is especially resilient, making it the perfect metaphor for a film depicting the struggles of a family fighting to stay together during its first year in a completely foreign place.
And it’s important to note the simplicity of minari, the plant, contrasting against the complicated nature of humans whose thoughts, ideas, and foregone conclusions prevent them from seeing the truth right before their eyes. The film itself challenges the viewer’s notions by leaving very little to mystery — but it’s our own bias and judgments that create an undercurrent of persistent tension.
Take Paul, the Korean War veteran played wonderfully by Will Patton. Ugly and unkempt, Paul’s religious speech and twitchy movements might lead some to believe he’s untrustworthy as a character. Admittedly, I suspected Paul could be an antagonist for the family — a possible wolf in sheep’s clothing who swindles them somehow.
Even Jacob, who hires Paul as his hired hand, looks down upon him. When the family sees Paul dragging a heavy cross down a dirt road one Sunday, Jacob mocks him. Despite Paul’s hard work and faith in Jacob’s abilities, he’s kept at an arm’s length.
After Paul befriends Monica and comes over for dinner, things between Jacob and his employee turn sour when Paul offers to help by performing religious rites around the house. Jacob, almost sees it as a betrayal — that his wife would put her faith in God but not in her husband.
Like minari, Paul has a second chance at life. Despite the war taking a toll on on his body and mental health, he is earnest and sincere, wanting what’s best for the Yi family. What Jacob feels and understands about Paul is more a reflection on his own state of mind, and it challenges viewers like me who spent the entire movie questioning whether Paul’s motives were pure.
And there are no real villains here, except maybe the lies we construct in the absence of a clear antagonist. Minari eschews physical bad guys and posits that the conflicts are the ones we create in ourselves when we don’t trust what we see and know.
And it’s in the tried and tested relationships between the characters in the story that we see there are lessons to be learned.
Jacob and Monica, seeing their relationship tested by the do-or-die premise of Jacob’s venture, spend moments alone together in tense silence. They are two sides of the same coin — Monica works hard at improving her work just as Jacob works at creating a better future for his family. But while Jacob looks to the future, Monica lives in the present with all of its own concerns. After she persuades Jacob to take her to the local church, the cultural divide between her and the parishioners gets the better of her. She continues to send her children there, but her desires for a social circle seem narrow and particular.
Young David, who has Americanized visions of a gentle grandmother who bakes cookies, is openly disappointed when his grandmother Soon-ja (Yuh-jung Yoon) comes in the form of a rugged and tough woman who would rather watch Wrestlemania than put on an apron. David’s heart is weak, but his feelings toward his grandmother are mischievous and discriminatory. And just when Soon-Ja wins him over, tragedy strikes when she suffers a stroke.
In terms of plotting, it’s no coincidence that Soon-ja is leveled by an affliction on her mind, while her grandson lives with a condition on his heart. What the characters see in themselves as strengths become weaknesses and vice versa.
It’s also pertinent that the minari plant is introduced to the story by Soon-ja. She takes her grandchildren to the forest where she plants the seeds. Soon-ja is the catalyst to the story — a facilitator and challenger who is both mediator and destroyer.
When she first arrives, Soon-ja gives Monica money, which serves as a backup plan if Jacob fails. But it only strengthens Monica’s doubt against him as a way out when the inevitable happens.
And the story takes a dramatic turn when, in the midst of all the unfortunate things, things start working out for the family. David’s heart shows signs of improvement, and Jacob’s work comes to fruition after a storeowner accepts a deal to accept shipments from Jacob’s farm. You would think the family would go on a victory lap — but that’s when it completely falls apart. Just as circumstances have changed for the better, Jacob lets slip that success is more important than family. Monica, seeing Jacob’s true intent, finally and completely gives up on him.
The scene is devastating, and both Yeung and Han deliver a remarkable performance through their eyes and expressions. No words need be said between them to explain or describe the complete crumbling of their relationship, but it’s there, clear as day.
It takes one more tragedy, a blessing in disguise, that removes the scales from the family’s eyes. A fire on the shed holding the entire harvest wipes out the representation or obstacle of their faith. For Jacob, it’s everything he’s worked for. For Monica — it’s the apple of her husband’s eye. For the children, it’s the dividing force between their parents.
And when all is lost, the family finds that all they have — and have had — is each other.
It’s a moving film filled with grace and consideration. That despite their differences, as insurmountable as they seem, the thing that matters most is their willingness to believe and support each other.
How wonderfully simple for minari. How radically difficult for humans.
Directed by: Isaac Chung Lee
Screenplay by: Isaac Chung Lee
Starring: Steven Yeun, Yeri Han, Yuh-Jung Youn, Will Patton, Alan S. Kim, Noel Cho, Darryl Cox, Esther Moon, Ben Hall, Eric Starkey, and Jacob M. Wade