“Garden of Eden is big! Like this!” Steven Yeun’s Jacob proclaims at the site of his proposed farm at the beginning of Lee Isaac Chung’s, Minari. His wife, Monica, looks on in a mix of despair and rage as her children play blissfully a few feet away. It opens up Chung’s film with: to immigrants, what does a dream look like? And what are you willing to do for it?
The Yi family moves from the west coast to the rural south in small-town Arkansas. The father, Jacob Yi (Steven Yeun), is desperate to break out of his dead-end job as a chicken sexer. Hoping for a fresh new start and a chance at financial autonomy, Jacob dreams of growing Korean vegetables to sell to the growing population of the diaspora. Despite her unhappiness with her husband’s plans, Monica (Han Ye-ri) brings her mother (Youn Yuh-jung) over from Korea, much to the dismay of her grandchildren, namely David (Alan Kim).
Director Lee Isaac Chung wastes no time establishing Jacob and Monica’s tension and letting it erupt. In just the first 15 minutes of the movie, the couple get into an explosive fight that lays the crux of the main argument. Monica is unhappy with how their life, Jacob wants to play the long-con with his farm. It is an argument all too familiar with any immigrant diaspora: do you play it safe or do you chase a dream?
The brilliance of Minari is its dedication to the quiet in-between moments. Chung’s tender subtlety and moments of montage moved by dream-like music feel reminiscent of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s work. Characters move from scene to scene interacting with each other with a type of realism only a director with the lived experience of the movie’s bones could direct, without all the gooey sentimentality a biographical film sometimes brings. It never feels like Chung is trying to make characters martyrs or heroes, or solve a previous grievance in his life through a mouthpiece in a character. The parents in Minari are never picture perfect, in fact, most of the movie is a stretched-out argument between the two of them, with both valid sentiments behind it. They both fight with the same desperation of wanting their family to thrive in a better life. The only difference is how they want to do it and what they’re willing to give up.
Steven Yeun, as usual, is indomitable on-screen. There’s a coolness to his character that feels true to the patriarch of an immigrant family. He is constantly tip-toeing the line between risk and reward. Where he shines though, is when he’s on-screen with Ye-ri Han. There is a sense of a weary love between them, one that feels specific to an immigrant couple. Chung’s script and direction capture the delicate push-and-pull of a couple who have survived a move across the ocean. It creates a complicated but rich relationship where you can’t help but root for both. They both want their family to thrive, but they want it in different ways. Newcomers Alan Kim and Noel Kate Cho hold their own against their heavyweight counterparts, with Kim often stealing the show. Minari could almost be a film from David’s eyes (Chung has mentioned that Minari is based on his experiences as a young boy on a remote farm). Watch it with that lens and it fits perfectly. He has a warmth and wonder that anchors the film from stepping into the melodrama zone.
As a child of immigrants myself, the whitewashing of the American Dream is a strange one to watch in mainstream media. This is of course not to say that white people can’t chase the capitalist dream set up by ancestors who had significantly lower mortgages and lower school tuitions to deal with. The American Dream, as it is today, feels so potent as a narrative for stories of those who cross oceans for a better life. There is something bizarre about the immigrant experience being erased from this narrative when it’s the very marketing scheme that immigration has promised to migrants for centuries. Movies like Revolutionary Road, The Great Gatsby and more recently, Nomadland are all snapshots of the dream that don’t quite fit into what I know to be true.
To speak from my own experience, I am the daughter of Filipino parents. The Philippines’ biggest export is people. Remittances from families who live in the US, Canada, Dubai and more are huge drivers in the Filipino economy. Leaving is what brings you the money; staying is a detriment to those not born in the upper echelons. In this way, the so-called dream has permeated the conscious everywhere. It has made itself worldwide.
It’s a shame that this story about the American Dream has been evaded time and time again by the accolades of this season. Minari feels more American Dream to this generation than its spiritual (and white) predecessors. It is not a cheering triumph of climbing the ranks of capitalism nor the white picket fence that comes with it. It’s the trailer home that goes from temporary to permanent, the spices and fish we miss from our homeland and the small moments where we choose each other instead of the dream.