Minari is about the ragged American Dream and its idealistic intent that is in equal part alluring but also full of empty promises and broken dreams. The Yi family find themselves in surroundings totally alien to them (in this case rural Arkansas) in a small, rickety trailer that could easily be blown away from a tornado. There are many hardships to endure for the Yi family who struggle for money, struggle in their personal relationships and struggle with loneliness living in a small town where personal connections and friendships are hard to come by.
Monica’s (who yearns for a sense of community that can found in either a big city or a return to Korea) loneliness and her husband’s blind following of the American Dream, with Jacob devoting his entire time to the farm, becomes the main cause of the chasm that grows between them. They begin to forget what made them fall in love in the first, no longer feeling the romantic feelings they once had for each other. The martial strife is very well written (the two performances are incredible), with the tension between the pair bubbling underneath the surface until it silently explodes in an emotional climax (even if I felt one aspect of the climax was a little contrived).
It’s this look at family and marital life that makes Minari a tender tale. Much like the poignant and deliberately paced films from the Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda, director Lee Isaac Chung allows for light humour among the struggles as the family overcome difficulties and bond across generations in the midst of great hardship. It’s the dynamic and complex inter-personal relationships that helps the film become bittersweet, triumphant and optimistic, leaving us with a satisfied, affirming feeling of assurance in the importance of family.
The film’s relaxed pacing allows us to feel this assurance and faith in family helping us overcome obstacles. The central relationship between young David (Alan Kim) and his grandmother (Youn Yuh-jung) is allowed grow and flourish into something poignant and moving, despite American-born David’s initial rejection of anything Korean (according to David his grandmother smells "Korean"). As the grandmother, Youn Yuh-jung brings some much life to the role, helping build the relationship between her and David.
As well written as the personal relationships are (even Jacob and David share their touching moments), I felt Anne (the older sister) was left out of the story, with the brother taking most of the film’s and parent’s attention (perhaps due to his heart condition). I would have liked to see more from Anne’s perspective, and how she felt feeling as though her grandmother and parents focused more on her younger sibling. She’s left to be the responsible one, looking after her brother more than the parents did, and this must add to her isolation as she struggles to connect to her own family and those outside it.
It’s interesting to note that the Yi family face many problems, but racial hostility isn’t one of them. Comments are made that are insensitive, such as the “why the flat face” comment, but it seemingly comes more from ignorance and lack of experience talking to someone of a particular race. In the film, it’s rarely hostile, but it still introduces a certain distance and divide between the Korean born family members and the locals, whilst the American born David is able to overcome that divide. The people of the small town treat the Yi family with curiosity rather than hostility (with one young local boy befriending David). It doesn’t mean that the comments weren’t racist, but they more stem from a childish lack of understanding about the impact they might cause from what they are saying (being that the most obvious, and perhaps only, cases of racism in the film are from children who perhaps don’t know better).
It’s beautifully shot and scored and driven by a story that is very personal whilst simultaneously a tale of social isolation and longing for home and security that many immigrants traveling to America can relate to no matter where they are from.