One of the hottest titles this award season has been “Minari.” Director Lee Isaac Chung has done something special, capturing a truly American tale through the lens of hope, and it’s both beautiful and disheartening. The story follows a young Korean family in the 1980s after a move from California to Arkansas in search of their own version of the American dream. It’s a simple narrative about the complexities of American life.
The husband and father is Jacob (Steven Yeun). He’s happy to be in America but not fulfilled with his work as a chicken sexer (separating baby chicks by gender). He takes a leap of faith, deciding to move across the country and try his hand at farming. This is his plan to grant his family a better life.
The roller coaster of agricultural living frustrates Jacob in unexpected ways. It certainly doesn’t help the marital problems that he and his dissatisfied wife Monica (Yeri Han) hoped to leave behind in California. The children constantly witness brutal arguments between their parents over their quality of life.
This is not the life poor Monica dreamed of when the young couple left Korea to save one another. She brings her mother Soonja (Yuh-Jung Youn), a foul-mouthed firecracker, to live with them in hopes that it makes her feel less alone. The results are mixed, but Soonja hilariously shakes up the household, especially in her relationship with the children who take some time to get used to her kind of crazy.
If it feels like an emotional journey (it brought my wife to tears), it’s because it shows real life. There’s something familiar in the story that we can relate to. It could be the authentic family dynamics we see in the different roles of the household. Perhaps it’s the struggle to provide, while battling doubt of our self worth. Maybe it takes us back to our childhoods, helplessly watching our parents grapple with these same things. Whatever it is, it’s a familiar journey that invokes familiar feelings.
The farmland itself, along with the minari that the grandma plants by the creek, symbolizes our own personal journeys to grow our lives into something worthwhile. Like the crops, we can’t do it alone. Outside factors can either give the nourishment needed or damage the final yield.
Though the film lacked a big Hollywood star, it may have very well created one in Steven Yeun. I was hesitant to believe the hype around his performance of Jacob, which earned him numerous nominations, including for the Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role. I mean, it’s Glenn from “The Walking Dead” fame. Most people don’t know anything else he has been in.
I was impressed with his supporting role in 2018 South Korean psychological thriller “Burning,” but how would handle taking the lead role in “Minari?” He surprised me in all the ways I could hope, consistently expressing the internalized emotions of a man who moved his family to a different place to create a better life. His quiet moments are some of his loudest, as he feels the pressure of such a gamble and the fear of failing to provide for his family.
Jacob made the decision to move his family on his own, and he bears much of the burden on his own. When the stress reaches its boiling point, he can’t hide his vulnerability.
“I just want them to see me succeed in something for once,” Jacob finally reveals to his wife. It’s heartbreaking and relatable.
“Minari” is a sobering reminder that the American dream isn’t guaranteed for anyone. As much as you want a family like Jacob’s to succeed, there are always going to be factors outside of our control. No matter how hard we work, there’s always the pendulum of chance that can swing either way.
It’s what gives life the highest of highs and lowest of lows, and it’s what makes “Minari” such a genuine experience.
“Minari” is available to rent on demand.”
Scott McDaniel is a journalist who lives with his wife and three kids in Bargersville. He is an adjunct professor of journalism courses.