Writer and director Lee Isaac Chung revisits his childhood in semi-autobiographical drama Minari. The narrative follows Korean-American couple Jacob (Steven Yeun) and Monica (Han Ye-ri) and their children Anne (Noel Kate Cho) and David (Alan Kim), who move to rural Arkansas to build a new life on a farm. With a lot to learn about the agricultural business, the challenges they face begin to put financial and emotional strain on their close-knit family.
Leaving their steady yet incredibly boring chick sexing jobs behind in California, the Yi clan are well aware of the risk they’re taking to improve their standard of living. Against vast green landscapes captured brilliantly by cinematographer Lachlan Milne, we see Jacob slaving away on his land trying to make ends meet. He desperately strives to achieve the American Dream, wearing a red baseball cap as he works, perhaps used here as a symbol of how warped that once aspirational concept has become in modern times.
Ironically for a film centred around farming, there isn’t a great focus on plot. Instead, Chung allows the heart-warming family dynamic to develop patiently, gently observing assimilation through the lens of first generation immigrants. Conflicts arise from the health scares caused by young David’s heart murmur, and the introduction of grandmother Soon-ja who becomes integral to the story and grows the vegetables that give the film its name. The conversations between Soon-ja and David place an amusing emphasis on the cultural differences between Korea and the US, and their unusual relationship provides moments of tenderness as well as laughter.
Films don’t come much more personal than this for a filmmaker, and Chung has crafted a simple yet sublime picture with Minari. Yeun and Ye-ri give excellent performances, especially when their marriage is put to the test in this quietly compelling exploration of identity in 1980s America.