‘Minari’ is a tender ode to the immigrant dream

The 2021 awards season has proven itself to be one of the most diverse and cultural barrier-breaking years to date. With films such as Judas and the Black Messiah, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and Soul telling compelling stories while making waves in the industry, it’s no surprise Minari is invoking change in its own way.

Minari might appear to be a story that we are familiar with- a story of immigrants trying to obtain the American dream in a land full of opportunities in their own way, but it goes deeper than the generalized story of becoming American. In fact, it’s almost villainous to label the film as a byproduct of the genre.

Nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Minari focuses on the struggles of the journey towards the sense of the American dream while impacting the young children of immigrant families. Taking the inspiration and experiences by director and writer Lee Isaac Chung, the film also expresses the themes of displacement and belonging while deviating away from conventional expectations.

Minari follows the story of a Korean-American family that moves to an Arkansas farm from California as they search for their own American dream. Jacob (Steven Yuen), a recent Korean arrival, is determined to cultivate the independence of farm life through the use of a pint-sized piece of land in the Ozarks.

(L-R) Yeri Han, Steven Yeun. Photo by Josh Ethan Johnson, Courtesy of A24.

The arrival and the start of a relationship between the family’s fly, foul-mouth, but incredibly loving grandmother from Korea, Soonja (Yuh-Jung Youn), and wide-eyed unruly seven-year-old son David ( Alan Kim) help the family move onto a path that relies on upholding their cultural roots while trying to make their way into their future.

What sets the film apart from other Hollywood-produced stories of immigrants coming to America is three things: urbanity, familiarity and inclusion. Minari takes a different route on the topic of assimilation versus exclusion by having the family move in a blocky little home on cinderblocks, hours away from the nearest city.

As Jacob sees their newly acquired land as a fresh start for a better life, the matriarch of the family, Monica ( Han Ye-ri), sees it otherwise. With almost no Korean communities around their new home and the worries of David’s health issue with no hospitals within miles, she expresses disdain the rural farm life. The family is forced to adapt to living in a predominately white, agricultural landscape.

Telling the story through the eyes of David, the film acknowledges that the aforementioned “immigrant experience” is not just about individuals who leave their home countries to embrace America’s promise of opportunities. It blossoms the universal human experience as a whole of adjusting to something entirely different with the struggles of loneliness isolation.

Minari Steven Yeun, Alan S. Kim. Director Lee Isaac Chung. Credit: Courtesy of A24

What amplifies the feelings of exclusion is Chung’s choice to have the characters speak Korean for most of the film. In films with immigrant leads such as 2011’s Oscar-nominated “A Better Life,” English is spoken for at least half of the film in order to preserve American engagement while dwindling the issue of language barriers that immigrants typically face. Minari ‘s choice of carefully placed English verses while upholding Korean as the primary language feels more natural and grounded.

The choice also led to controversy at the Golden Globes due to the organization’s choice of categorizing Minari as a foreign film despite having an American direct, filmed in the United States, and was financed by American companies.

The film’s two leads; Yuen and Kim are what make Minari ‘s portrayal of immigrant families realistic and emotional.

Yuen’s performance as the patriarch of the family is superb, grounded, and multilayered with relatability as he explores his dreams while being pressured, and sometimes losing sight, of providing for his family.

Kim’s portrayal of the weirdness of being a kid, the rejection of cultural roots for the Americanized culture, and eventual sprouting relationship with on-screen grandma feel honest in the eyes of a viewer who may also be a first-generation American. The initial reluctance for a sense of inclusion and eventual development of individualism is what many first-generation children go through while growing up in the United States.

Since its debut at the Sundance Film Festival in 2020, Minari has proven itself to be a worthy contender during the award season. It won both the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at Sundance, it won the title as one of the Top 10 films of the year by the American Film Institute, and has garnered six nominations for this year’s Academy Awards.

Minari is also making Oscar history as Yuen is the first Asian-American to be nominated for Best Actor, following last year’s historic Asian representation with Parasite becoming the first South Korean film to win Best Picture.

In a film that focuses on the search for greater opportunities that tend to come with a great cost, Minari isn’t just about an immigrant family; it’s about adapting a sense of belonging while planting the cultural seeds to grow a home.

Featured Image: (L-R) Alan S. Kim, Steven Yeun, Noel Cho, Yeri Han. Photo by David Bornfriend, Courtesy of A24

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