‘Minari’: the Korean-American Dream

A family starts a farm in Arkansas in the 1980s, in this moving, naturalistic kitchen-sink drama

I saw the Minari movie. In this naturalistic drama set in the 1980s, a Korean family moves from California to Arkansas. The father, an expert “chicken sexer,” has purchased some land, with dreams of starting a farm. Minari’s director, Lee Issac Chung, based the story on his own childhood experiences, and he doesn’t over-sentimentalize them. His avatar in the film, a little boy named David, has a heart condition. His parents fight a lot. They live in a trailer that leaks when it rains. The farm has water problems and the family is desperate for money.

★★★★(4/5 stars)
Directed by: Lee Isaac Chung
Written by: Lee Isaac Chung
Starring:  Steven Yeun, Yeri Han, Alan Kim, Yuh-jung Yoon, Will Patton
Running time: 115 min

Yet Minari is, in many ways, an optimistic movie about the American immigrant dream. The family flees Korea seeking a better life in the United States. They work terrible factory jobs until they save enough money to homestead. In their trailer home, they speak Korean and English interchangeably, eat kimchi and fermented black beans, but also drink Mountain Dew. They don’t sentimentalize their homeland. When grandma comes to take care of the kids, she brings a Korean card game and the seeds of the fertile minari plant that gives the movie its title, but she also enjoys watching wrestling on TV and thinks that living in a house on wheels is “fun.”

Minari tells its story straightforwardly, without excessive sentiment or flashbacks. It’s reminiscent of a French neorealist film, or Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander, or even Ray’s Apu trilogy. But it’s also distinctly American, even pro-American, in its sensibilities. David’s mother is unapologetically Christian, while the rest of the family is indifferent. But the patriarch, Jacob, hires on a white guy to help him on the farm. This guy speaks in tongues and spends his Sundays lugging a heavy cross down a rural road. Chung never judges him. His sympathies are with the Pentecostal eccentric, not the godless people who mock him.

For a movie about an Asian family in rural America in the 1980s, Minari contains almost no racism whatsoever. All the white people accept the Korean family, from the small-town bankers to the small-town preachers. At church, a boy asks David “why is your face so flat?” David says, “it’s not,” and then has a sleepover with the boy, who treats him to some chewing tobacco.

Minari is full of incident, and even a little bit of melodrama. But mostly it’s quiet, reserved, and conservative, extolling the virtues of hard work, faith, and family in the face of life’s hardships. Featuring excellent performances from The Walking Dead’s Steven Yeun and veteran Korean actress Yuh-Jung Youn as the grandmother, Minari is a little slow and contemplative to be a huge hit. But anyone who has family that comes from somewhere else, or had parents that struggled with finances and expectations for success, will be able to see a part of themselves in this very particular, very small, very American story.

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Neal Pollack

Book and Film Globe Editor in Chief Neal Pollack is the author of 12 semi-bestselling books of fiction and nonfiction, including the memoirs Alternadad and Stretch, the novels Repeat and Downward-Facing Death, and the cult classic The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer for both film and television, Neal has written articles and humor for every English-language publication except The New Yorker. Neal lives in Austin, Texas, and is a three-time Jeopardy! champion.

4 thoughts on “‘Minari’: the Korean-American Dream

  • February 26, 2021 at 4:52 pm

    Thank you for this review, Neal. I am excited for “Minari”. It looks excellent, and Yuen seems on top form.

  • February 26, 2021 at 4:54 pm

    Sorry, that should read “Yeun”.

  • February 26, 2021 at 10:51 pm

    Sounds great, I’ll watch it for sure. Nice succinct review – what a relief to read!

  • July 22, 2021 at 5:40 pm

    You really dumped your own views onto this movie. It was wonderful as you say, but there’s nothing inherently conservative about it, and the mom likes to go to church and isn’t otherwise “unapologetically” anything except putting her children first. Jacob calls the religious nut crazy on more than one occasion, but builds a friendship in spite of it. My parents moved to Arkansas in the 80s and land was cheap and they put a mobile home on it and my dad worked in his shop and now my brother lives there. Luckily we didn’t have ARM exploding loans and bankers taking advantage to the extent they did in the 2000s or even during the Depression, or Jacob would have lost his home. Let’s be a bit more objective in reviews.


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