By John Hanlon
The main character in the new drama Minari simply wants a better life for his family. A young father of two, Jacob (Steven Yeun) moves his family out to Arkansas so he can build a foundation for success. To make consistent money, he starts working at a hatchery alongside his wife Monica (Yeri Han), where he separates chickens by sex (the male ones don’t taste as good, he tells his son). However, Jacob’s dream is owning a successful farm so he purchases a significant amount of land in rural Arkansas and starts growing crops.
Written and directed by Lee Isaac Chung, the semi-autobiographical film focuses on the family’s struggles in the 1980s. Jacob wants to become an American success story while Monica understands how much is at risk. Jacob and Monica’s young son David (Alan S. Kim) suffers from a heart condition and their new home is an hour away from the nearest hospital. Early on, the parents fight about their new surroundings, alienating David and his older sister Anne (Noel Cho).
The family at the center of the story is Korean and the script shows the family -- who just moved from California -- adjusting to their new surroundings. Although Jacob is focused on becoming a success story, Monica longs for the familiarity of relatives or the kinship of a Church community. After one heated argument with her husband, Monica gets one of her wishes and she invites her mother Soonja (Yuh-jung Youn) to move in with the struggling family.
There are few big theatrical moments in Chung’s screenplay. Instead, the story unfolds naturally showing how the characters grow and subtly change over time. Jacob, the headstrong paternal figure, begins to rely on the support of Paul (Will Patton), a local religious man. Monica, who was unsuccessful at a larger California hatchery, starts to understand the entrepreneurial spirt. David, the youngster who likely spent most of his life in the United States, learns how to appreciate the uniqueness of his wrestling-intrigued grandmother.
The relationships in this feature are raw and authentic and Chung presents them with sensitivity and care. Despite the characters’ disagreements with each other (and there are plenty), there is love there and it’s presented here with grace, showing how the characters learn and build stronger relationships with each other.
Like Roma, the story here offers a sensitive and profound portrait of one family. In doing so, the filmmakers create something universal that’s easy to appreciate and empathize with. At times, the plot seems slow but that pace allows the characters from the film to sneak up on the viewers, leading to a few surprisingly emotional moments at the end.
By focusing on smaller moments in the relationships between the characters and in Jacob's business pursuits, the film tells a deeper story about the entrepreneurial spirit and the bonds of family. Although there are many relationships on display here, the most moving one might be the one formed between David and Soonja. David believes his grandmother should be a traditional one but ultimately recognizes Soonja’s uniqueness and the gifts she brings to the family.
Lee Isaac Chung’s film recognizes the complications that arise when someone starts a new business and it also recognizes the complicated dynamics that families wrestle with every day. There are no easy answers sometimes and Jacob and Monica deal with their differing perspectives about business and raising a family.
This loving feature recognizes both points of view and the views of supporting characters like David and Soonja and it does so in a way that validates, appreciates and ultimately empathizes with all of them.