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South Korean film ‘Minari’ combines powerful storytelling with brilliant acting

Starring Steven Yeun, Noel Kate Cho, Alan Kim and Yeri Han, the Korean drama film "Minari" delves into an emotional, heart-wrenching story about families, love and the American Dream. – Photo by Steven Yeun / Instagram

There are some movies that I relate to so much that my heart aches just from watching the simple gestures of the actors.

In “Minari,” starring Steven Yeun and Yeri Han, I found myself irretrievably heartbroken over the tragedy of this Korean-American couple losing all that they had worked for in a single scene — the most heart-wrenching scene in the entire movie by far.

What brought tears to my eyes was not what was happening to them, but rather the gentle caress between the main characters during that single event.

Minari” is the story of Jacob, played by Yeun, and Monica, played by Han, a couple that leaves Korea in the 1980s for America, in search of better opportunities for themselves. They started out as chicken sexers in California until they made enough money to move to Arkansas to buy a farm, all in the pursuit of Jacob’s one-sided dream to have a “garden.”

There are many reasons to watch and love this movie, which recently won Best Foreign-Language Film at the Golden Globes, but I want to preface this review by saying that I loved this film due to how I personally related to it through my own family’s struggles.

My grandparents and parents are immigrants themselves and seeing their pursuit for a life in America displayed on the metaphorical “big screen” — metaphorical because I actually watched this movie on my computer through a screening hosted by A24 — was a stunning and monumental experience.

I applaud the director, Lee Isaac Chung, for making this semi-autobiographical film a reality, despite the many struggles he faced. Even if you aren’t an immigrant yourself, you can still relate to this movie and enjoy it for all the themes and challenges it so eloquently brings to the screen.

Being together

It’s the eternal irony, isn’t it? A family immigrates to America for a better life and finds their marriage and their filial bonds torn apart at the seams due to the hardships they have to go through once here. I mentioned it in my review of “Kim’s Convenience,” but I will always wonder at the true cost of immigration — the intangible cost.

Nevertheless, I’m grateful for my parents’ sacrifice, and I think the kids in this movie are too. More importantly, I think Jacob and Monica are all the better for overcoming these hardships together — and that’s the crux of the movie.

There’s a lot of continuity that flows throughout the film, such as when Jacob, in the beginning, all by himself, meets with a man who will help him drill a well for his farm and then meets with him again at the end — this time, accompanied by his wife.

There are two possible messages Chung tries to convey through Monica and Jacob’s dynamic: One, that doing things one-sidedly, such as strong-arming your family into moving all the way from California to Arkansas, without so much as consulting your wife’s opinion, is selfish, and two, that if you are going to do this selfish thing no matter what, then you're going to have to find some way to compromise.

Without spoiling too much of the plot, there's this one dramatic scene in the movie where the two spouses confront one another and have an argument along the lines of, even if things are going good now, what happens when things get bad again? Are we only a family when everything goes our way?

This argument is painful for anyone to hear because who hasn’t wanted to give up when the going gets tough? Fortunately, this wasn't the case for this couple as, when the ultimate worse thing that could happen to them did, the first people they turned to were each other.

By the end of the movie, we see the family sleeping all together in the family room, an idea that was firmly rejected by Monica at the movie’s outset but was literally embraced by the whole family at the end. It’s this togetherness that I cherish. If for no other reason you wish to watch this movie, then watch it because it reminds you of how to not take your family for granted.

The dichotomy of boys versus girls

In East Asian culture, as with, actually, a majority of cultures around the world, the boy is always the one expected to be strong and to carry the weight of the family’s burdens on one’s shoulders. I like how Chung flips this narrative by explicitly having Monica be a strong, independent woman.

It’s clear that Monica doesn't have to be in Arkansas chasing this silly dream with her husband, she basically said as much in the movie, but she’s still there anyway.

Similarly, I empathize with the plight of the eldest daughter, Anne, played by Noel Cho, in which she assumes the mantle of the adult caretaker to her younger brother, David, played by Alan S. Kim, with both of her parents working around the clock.

She’s not meek or weak-willed — she’s overburdened and way out of her league, trying her best to grow up in time to help her parents before it’s too late. Anne is all of us big sisters.

To be fair, though, Chung also gives the men in this movie their chance to be vulnerable and human, instead of tropes on the screen. In particular, there’s this one scene where Jacob has Monica wash his hair for him because he overworked his arms plowing the field that day.

The way that he implicitly trusts his wife to take care of him, even as he tries to shoulder the burden of making a whole farm work, is so natural and pure — as it should be in an equal and trusting relationship.

Finally, I think David is himself an anti-archetype of the spoiled young boy — one who is usually expected to take on the patriarchal role and never really forced to work. Sure, the grandma may spoil him — as grandmothers tend to do — but, at the end of the day, David has a heart condition, which necessarily makes him physically weaker than boys are stereotypically expected to be.

Instead of being berated for what he lacks or spoiled for what he’s afflicted with, he’s treated as a normal kid for the most part. His grandmother even encourages him to push himself to his limits, to grow as strong and as prosperous as the minari itself, even when other people would have made allowances for his condition.

Minari

This title, “Minari,” to me, is synonymous with the American Dream. Minari is actually a plant, known as "water celery" in English, that can easily adapt to different climates and seems to grow prolifically anywhere it is planted.

In fact, in a question-and-answer discussion at the end of the A24 showing of the movie, Chung recounts his own family’s experience with planting minari and how, when they left their farm, the minari was the one that grew the best, and wherever it grew, it would purify the land and soil.

Of course, you're welcome to have your own interpretation of what minari represents, whether it be the tenacity and ability of Korean-American families to successfully plant roots wherever they go or how fortune can be found in all the unexpected places — Chung said that the minari wasn't the first plant one would grow, but rather the second, because no one ever thought it would do well.

My own thought, though, is that it represents a little slice of the American Dream. The plant is an underdog, grown in the roughest conditions — the movie basically portrayed the minari growing in a pit by a dirty creek with snakes everywhere.

Yet, it still grew, and it grew well.

Isn’t that the story of the immigrant family? Given the worst conditions and the worst starting positions, a lot of families have come to America and still grown.

I wasn’t kidding when I said I saw my own family in this story, and I'm willing to bet that you will too. If you are interested in watching “Minari,” there are still showings available through A24. It’s definitely worth the experience.

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