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Thursday, Aug 18, 2022

Reel Critic: ‘Minari’

<span class="photocreditinline">Courtesy Photo</span>
Courtesy Photo

The American Dream is often a beacon for immigrants. Yet, time and again, it becomes clear that this dream is only an ideal: what lies beneath the veneer is a story of strife and sacrifice. When director Lee Isaac Chung tells the story of “Minari,” he highlights a long-awaited different side of the American Dream.

Set in the 1980s, “Minari” focuses on a Korean-American family that recently moved to rural Arkansas. It quickly becomes apparent that the Yi family feels displaced: The film opens with derelict scenes of their mobile home and close-ups of their dismayed faces. The landscape is plain and humble, and Monica Yi (Han Ye-ri), the young wife of Jacob Yi (Steven Yeun), is already preoccupied with worry for their son David’s (Alan Kim) health.

To the chagrin of Monica, Jacob — an aspiring farmer who wishes to grow and sell Korean produce — pushes on with his agricultural aspirations even as money gets short, losing sight of his family as the desperation for success inundates his thoughts. 

In a conversation with Variety, “Parasite” director Bong Joon Ho describes Han Ye-ri’s performance as “delicate and memorable.” Through issues on the farm, within the house and with her ailing mother, Soonja (Youn Yuh-jung), Monica quietly tries her best to keep the family together. It’s difficult to imagine another approach to this character; her thoughtful silence speaks volumes.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention child actors Alan Kim and Noel Cho, who played David and Anne Yi, respectively. Though adorable, the on-screen sibling duo captures childhood in as morose a way as I’ve ever seen. Cho mirrors Han in her careful performance of Anne, assuming the role of a quiet older sister weighed down by pressure to grow up too fast. Like any other newcomer in a strange city, she wants to fit in with the other kids, a problem she shares with her brother.

On this note, Kim plays a sullen, conflicted sibling — and a precocious one, at that. Even at such a young age, David is conscious of his cultural differences. He’s beyond obsessed with what a “real” American grandmother looks like, grappling with accepting Soonja as his. 

Though it’s heartbreaking to see him refuse to speak to her in Korean, criticize her broken English and glare at her in disdain, Kim’s performance nails the deep-seated desire for cultural assimilation. After all, the American Dream impacts children just as much as the rest of a family. Youn Yuh-jung’s performance is similarly wonderful, acting in opposition to her grandson’s notions of assimilation in her role of grandmother, wherein Soonja keeps faith in David and only wants the best for everybody. When things for the Yi family continue to spiral downward, the importance of family — in any capacity — is highlighted.

When I look back on “Minari,” I feel a sense of bittersweet empathy. Immigration, and assimilation into American life, is far from a monolithic success story, and recognizing diverse experiences and slow progress is important. “Minari” isn’t a feel-good film. For every moment of comic relief or peace, there is a moment of stress or heartbreak. Its balance and growth offer a cautiously optimistic — though no less honest — portrayal of the American Dream in the 1980s.