The entrepreneurial promise of our nation has been a beacon, within and without, for centuries now. You don’t have to be born here to know what that promise means in its simplest form. If you work hard enough, you can build and keep something that is yours. Hollywood has told these kinds of stories since at least as far back as “Citizen Kane” and the concept has evolved to include such disparate visions as “The Godfather” trilogy, “American Beauty” and even “The Social Network.” Hollywood itself could be argued as a shining example of the American Dream made manifest. It’s important to note that only one of the examples I just gave is an immigrant story and that it was bound by certain stereotypes which made it seem like something that was happening to America as much as in it. Those kinds of stories aren’t in fashion anymore. Out now in theaters, “Minari” makes a much more contemplative cultural statement and is a welcome variation on the theme of perseverance.
“Minari” depicts a Korean-American family and their efforts to make it as farmers in 1980s Arkansas. From the first moment they set foot on their rural plot, it’s clear there are conflicting expectations about what this new life will be. Jacob Yi has brought his family to this remote place based on an ambition they do not share. At least not right away. The tension between Jacob and his wife is emblematic of how he struggles against all of the realities he faces. His kids are unsettled. He is forced to seek help from a man whose place in the community seems even more tenuous than his own. And he must fight with the land itself, with all its intermittent hostility. All of this emotional complexity is expertly delivered by actor Stephen Yeun. He might still be better known as Glenn from “The Walking Dead.” But he brings the same understated charisma that made him a fan favorite in that universe to this role. He’s not alone on this set. Even more notable is the performance by Yeri Han as Monica. Her subtle navigation of the interplay between doubt and duty is a marvel and hers might be the real soul of the film.
From a plot standpoint, things take a turn when Monica’s mother shows up to help. She’s a necessary structural injection into the proceedings, for reasons I won’t spoil here, but her arrival marks a change in tone that I found disruptive to the story flow. Her focus shifts our focus to Jacob’s son David and since neither of them are as strong on screen as Yeun and Han, the energy flags. I don’t mean to say that young Alan Kim is wholly ineffective as David. In fact, he’s very good at capturing the sense of disconnection the family is feeling. But he’s given too much heavy lifting in this script and his interactions with Grandma Soon-ja occasionally fall short of their goal, which I suspect was to provide us with a breezy microcosm of film’s message. Even though it meanders and loses its way occasionally, “Minari” is a hopeful and strangely contemporary portrait of American opportunity. Through that lens, it’s a very moving experience, and its minor sins are entirely forgivable.
Director Lee Isaac Chung has made a tender, personally evocative drama with “Minari.” It’s a film that sneaks up on you, and I actually find myself considering it more fondly now than I did right after seeing it. I can’t comment on what it’s like for immigrants to make their way in this complicated country, but we can all sympathize with how the quieter corners of our map test the dreams of any person brave enough to claim them.