Sometimes movies don’t have to be all explosions and gunfire to really get the anxiety going. Sometimes it’s the tiniest of relatable moments that puts our stomach in knots. Seeing someone try to succeed against the odds is harrowing stuff. It’s why the underdog trope is one of the most celebrate character traits out there. Many modern American underdog stories are supported by the fact that they take place in the good ol US of A, a magical place of opportunity and success where you get as much as you give. Where prosperity can only be achieved by working hard and pulling up those bootstraps.
Most of us know this country isn’t really like that, yet its the opportunity for hope that drives families from all over the world to immigrate to this land to start anew. I’ve always found it to be funny that this is one of our country’s most celebrated freedoms, yet many seem to hate to see it in practice. “Another person coming to try to seize the semi-feasible treasures I have yet to capture myself despite my unapologetic head start? That’s not fair!”
What Minari understands is that life isn’t fair, yet we find the motivation to continue moving forward through many commonplace elements we may take for granted, whether it be family, friends or just pure, uncontrollable happenstance. It’s a film that remains so hopeful and so lighthearted even as everything continues to grow worse. Tender, charming and brimming with childhood innocence, Minari is a story of assimilation that goes far beyond just what it means to be a human.
Set in 1980s Arkansas, a Korean couple and their two young children move to a dingy trailer home seated atop cinderblocks resting on a large piece of land with a vague but unfortunate past. Worker as chicken sexers for years in California prior, the family looks to start anew, with patriarch Jacob planning to build his dream garden on his new land. Leaving behind the bustling, progressive West Coast for the rural, quiet south is a decision the family is not universally happy about, especially as all their money begins to drain away attempting to get by. While the parent’s relationship only grows more strenuous, their youngest son David struggles with accepting his newly-met grandmother’s Korean traditions as he longs to assimilate to American culture. Through hardships and trauma, the family trudges on, relying on their love for one another more than perhaps ever before.
Steven Yeun, who most probably know as Glen from AMC’s The Walking Dead despite him appearing in terrifically bizarre films like Sorry to Bother You and Burning, portrays Jacob. Driven by a desire to succeed, Jacob pours everything he’s got into this farm, hoping to earn a success he can claim he birthed with his own two hands. Despite his tenacity, Jacob’s unwillingness to settle for anything less than his dreams begins to put his family’s emotional and financial well-being at stake. Jacob has fully boughten into the idea of the American dream, even the elements that continue to constrict people to this day, like the faulty belief of how a man is measured only by his successes. His journey is as much for his family as it is for his ego, with the question being which one he’ll give up on first.
By his side is his hesitant wife Monica, played by Han Ye-ri. Longing for the comfort she once felt in California, Monica questions Jacob’s decision to pour all of their savings into their new farm. Her frustration is easy to understand as hardships continue to fall on the Yi family, severing the trust between Jacob and her. While Jacob has convinced he’s doing what needs to be done for their family to survive, Monica is ready to take the kids and return to a more familiar life, one with more monotony but with less uncertainty. It’s a difficult decision that makes the couple question the love for one another that may or may not be there after all this struggle. It sounds bleak, but little moments of success and happiness gives us hope that like all things, these hardships will soon pass. As we come to learn, the hardships may be only just beginning.
Outside of the family’s financial struggles, a matter of family and culture clash is occurring between the family’s youngest son and his newly-arrived grandmother. Played by the adorably talented Alan Kim, David is perhaps the most Americanized member of the family, knowing little of his time spent in Korea and feeling more at home within the structures of American living. His desire to assimilate is upended when the grandmother he never met comes to move into their tiny mobile home, sleeping on his floor and bringing with her little customs from the home country he never knew. David’s beliefs of what a grandmother should be are solidified by his experiences in America: they’re nice, smell good, they bake and they don’t swear. Grandma Soon-Ja is none of these things. Despite her blunt and old fashioned demeanor, she understands David’s dilemma more than anyone. While Jacob and Monica try to force Soon-Ja onto David, she remains patient with him as he lashes out against her demeanor. Even after he pulls a pretty disgusting prank on her, she’s the first person to understand where his anger is coming from and hopes to work with him to eventually build a relationship. It’s heartwarming to watch, and eventually shows just how mature David is for his age when he finally begins to accept her into his life.
Fitting with the idea that this film is about the tribulations of pursuing the American dream, the presentation in the visuals and soundtrack all have a fluttering, almost-dreamlike feel to it. The score is tender, soft and comforting. The cinematography captures the beauty in things as insignificant as weeds and dirt. All the playfulness and wonder from childhood is represented here alongside the more serious, less-blissful mindset of adulthood. Yet, these two separate sections of our lives are connected by one thing: a desire to belong. Both the adults and children of the Yi family desire to take root in their new home, becoming one with their neighbors but retaining the identity of their heritage. The film tackles this in a way that never feels manipulative or overtly-dramatic. Overt racism is discarded for general misunderstanding, a confusion not built from hate but from lack of knowledge. It doesn’t undermine the very real and widespread racism for Asians that can be found throughout the world, but it shows it’s not the only fight on the home front. Where the family connects with those around them is the familiarity of their situations. Everyone is trying to make the most of what they’ve been given and it doesn’t take a genius to recognize the human condition when they see it.
At the end of the day, this is an AMERICAN film. While the film’s dialogue is primarily Korean, this is still an American story created by a director who has more or less lived these experiences throughout his childhood. Director Lee Isaac Chung‘s film has given a rare opportunity in Hollywood for immigrants and children of immigrants to be see; to have their unique plights known to the rest of the nation. These are very real stories that continue to remain relevant to this day, and I think the world could learn to become kinder and wiser because of this film. No matter where we come from, we’re all human at the end of the day. We work, we aspire, we dream. Intimate and beautiful, Minari‘s lesson is pulled directly from the life of the titular plant. With a little love and care, we can make our home anywhere.
Wonderful, wonderful minari! For those who aren’t familiar with this little green plant, minari is an East Asian herb grown in moist areas, usually located next to a bountiful water source. Known for its light, herbal taste, it is a popular ingredient in many dishes for both its flavor and many health benefits. So of course I’m going to mishandle it in an attempt to create a movie-themed cocktail!
For this cocktail we’ll once again be using soju as our base liquor. Mixed with a little bit of lemon and muddled minari, the cocktail is both refreshing and herbal, providing a unique taste somewhere between a martini and a julep. If someone makes one for you, maybe give it a little sniff first. You never know if someone mischievous is running around trying to get you to drink pee.
- 2oz soju
- 8 minari leaves
- 3/4oz lemon juice
- 3/4oz simple syrup
- 1oz club soda
- Garnish: minari
- Garnish: lime wheel
- In a shaker, muddle the minari leaves with the lime juice, simple syrup, club soda and soju.
- Add ice and shake.
- Strain into chilled martini glass.
- Garnish with a sprig of minari and a lime wheel.