There is a classic American myth of puling yourself up by your bootstraps. If you work hard, rely on yourself and really WANT it, then you can achieve what your heart desires. In reality, hard work, desire and ability mean nothing sometimes because forces outside of your control will get in your way. This is the central idea behind Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari.
There are no true villains in the film. No bullies, no corporate entities, just difficult circumstances for our characters to overcome. This is what makes the film so universal. No one will get in your way to achieve your dream, but no one will magically come along and make it easier.
The film stars Steven Yeun as Jacob Yi, who moves his family from California to Arkansas to become a farmer. Along the ride is his reluctant wife Monica (Yeri Han), steady daughter Anne (Noel Kate Cho) and mischievous young son David (Alan Kim). Jacob has purchased a secluded piece of land and a mobile home in order to achieve his American dream. Monica is miserable, so Jacob capitulates and agrees to bring in Monica’s mother Soonja (Yuh-jung Youn) into the family home.
The story is split equally between Jacob’s attempts to make his farm viable and David’s reluctance to open up to his grandmother. Jacob doesn’t seem to know what he is doing, but he enlists the help of Paul (Will Patton), a ragged, highly religious man to assist him on the farm and things seem to be progressing, though accessing water from his own well is a recurring issue. Jacob and Monica work at a hatchling plant where they separate the chickens by sex. Jacob is the fastest in the business and he utilizes every bit of free time he has to work on the farm.
Meanwhile, David doesn’t like anything about his grandmother. She frequently curses, plays cards, watches professional wrestling and doesn’t behave at all like a grandmother. Eventually, she breaks through to David and he grows to love her as he should. All the while, Jacob leverages his financial future and his family’s own resources to make his American dream a reality.
Chung deserves all the credit in the world for making this story about the environmental issues the Yi family face, as opposed to the cliches of immigrants in the rural south. When the family go to a local church, they are met with warmth and friendliness when you expect hostility. When Paul admits he is a Korean war veteran, he holds no ill will towards Jacob. When Jacob goes to get a loan, the loan officer is kind and offers David a sucker.
This is the principle trick of the film. Just because there are no human barriers in the way, does not mean that others will not soon arise. It allows the audience to believe that everything will work out just fine. If people aren’t the problem, then what else is there?
Yeun has the trickiest role, trying his hardest to succeed and wanting to be a source of pride. His tenacity is his greatest strength and he will not allow his endeavor to fail. Han starts as the long-suffering spouse, but evolves into a more tender version where she sees more of the whole than her husband. He sees the long-term, she sees the short. I wish her role had been expanded.
Alan Kim and Yuh-jung Youn are the standouts. Kim plays the rare seven year-old that feels like his age. He is not precocious and wise beyond his years. He’s just a kid with kid desires. He stands out as the true perspective of the film. Youn does not burst in on the film and immediately cling to the characters, she adapts to each character’s feelings. Her daughter clings to her like a lifeline, but her grandson takes a while to get comfortable. Grandma is as mischievous as her grandson and without the fish-out-of-water eccentricities. She steals the film anytime she is onscreen.
Some parts of the film come across as heavy-handed. Every Sunday, Paul carries a large wooden cross up and down the road. Throwing rocks at snakes in the middle of “gardens” also feature prominently.
All of this does not diminish what Chung has accomplished. Minari is a film about struggle, but not about struggling, Pulling yourself up by your bootstraps isn’t enough, and you need to adapt to the various challenges in your work and in your life. There are no clear answers and no clear happy endings.