Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari follows the Yi Family, a Korean quartet immigrated to the United States in the 1980s. They settle in California at first, but Jacob (Steven Yuen) grows impatient with city life. He’s desirous of an expanse of land to call his own, of a family farm, of that elusive thing people sometimes call the American Dream. So he uproots the family and moves to rural Arkansas, where fifty acres of the best dirt in America await. His wife Monica (Han Ye-ri) is far more pragmatic, and she has trouble envisioning the farm of the future behind the dilapidated mobile home of the present. Meanwhile, their children David and Anne (Alan Kim and Noel Kate Cho) are at first simply along for the ride, fascinated by the fact that they now live in a house that has wheels.
Chung’s semi-autobiographical film — presented last night by Independent Film Festival Boston — may have the trappings of films you’ve seen before, but none of those are likely as heartfelt as Minari. By focusing less on the cultural adjustment of the Yi Family into their Arkansas community and more on the dynamics of the family itself, the story avoids the clichéd Big Ideas that mire so many indie films. Themes of racism and class struggle are certainly in play, but they’re secondary to the family drama. It could almost be called a chamber piece if it didn’t take place on such a wide expanse of land.
That’s not to say that Minari isn’t full of ideas, some of which are Big. The central metaphor is that of growth, asserted most readily through Jacob’s farm. He tries to control every aspect of it, notably digging his own well to avoid paying for water, insisting on planting Korean vegetables. He briefly argues with his farmhand Paul (Will Patton, nearly unrecognizable here) over the spacing of the lettuce; farther apart, Paul advises, and they’ll grow bigger. Jacob eventually concedes, maybe catching the intimation that his own family, isolated from others, will hopefully follow the same rule. But his initial method of packing the vegetables together isn’t so dissimilar from the control he exercises over the growth of that familial garden, characterized by a willingness to work hard, yes, but also by a drive to maximize the efficiency and productivity of something that may be better left to grow on its own.
There are shades of Allie Fox, the patriarch of The Mosquito Coast, in Jacob. Like Jacob, Allie seemingly picks a remote destination he believes to be free of the materialistic concerns that prevent true growth, uprooting his family with less thought for their comfort than his own drive for success. “Never pay for anything you can find for free,” spoken as fatherly advice from Jacob to David, sounds direct from the Book of Allie Fox. These are men who believe the American Dream is something to achieve and something to achieve with your own sweat and blood, family or no. Is it even achievable, though? Or is the American Dream the carrot on the stick that propels Jacob and Allie forever forward? And that second part of the myth: is the Dream really something to achieve on your own, even if it means losing your family? If it is…well, what’s dreamy about that?
Unlike Allie, though, Jacob still has within him the capacity to grow and learn. That’s one of the core strengths of Minari: growth is not only a theme and an explicit metaphor throughout, but it’s an idea with real follow-through. When Grandma (Youn Yuh-jung) comes to live with the family, she and young David seem entirely at odds. Watching their relationship develop is touching, and it comes with a metaphor of its own: Grandma’s minari herb, positioned on its own away from the rest of the farm, a plant that can grow anywhere.
Yuen is fantastic as Jacob, but eight-year-old Alan Kim is the standout as David. We see most of Minari through his eyes, and we fear for him because of his fragile heart condition. When his father repeatedly tells him “don’t run,” it’s both for David’s health and, maybe, for Jacob’s own need to exert control. A lesser movie would have almost certainly used this setup for drama later, a scene in which David’s little heart gives out, galvanizing the Yi Family at last. Without spoiling how things actually unfold, Minari finds ways for David and his family to grow past his condition instead.
Like this year’s Driveways — another film with an uprooted young Asian boy finding friendship in an elderly companion in middle America — there’s a gentleness to Chung’s film that at first presents itself as a simple slice-of-life drama. Minari proves to be more than that, effortlessly navigating shifting family dynamics, feeling both restless and hyperfocused at the same time. It’s one of the year’s best films, and one from which we all might take a small lesson in how to grow.