Korean-American film ‘Minari’ weaves themes into nuanced plot

The Yi family from “Minari” looks at their home. (Fair use from the Vulture)

First showcased at the Sundance Film Festival, “Minari” explores the clash of ideals among Korean family members who have immigrated to the U.S. Directed by Lee Isaac Chung, “Minari” aims to provide multiple perspectives of what it means to be an immigrant and is a fascinating movie with a powerful soundtrack and engaging cinematography.

The film’s main characters are the Yi family: husband and wife Jacob Yi (Steven Yeun) and Monica Yi (Han Ye-ri), their kids David (Alan Kim) and Anne (Noel Kate Cho), and grandma Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung). After moving from South Korea to the United States, the family first lives in California, then moves to Arkansas. Jacob aspires to become a farmer after working as a chicken sexer with his wife for almost a decade, but Monica resents him for making the family move away from their previous home in California. The movie sets up the conflict between Monica’s drive to protect her family and Jacob’s drive to make a better life for himself and thus his family as a whole. Their worldviews conflict frequently and are engaging throughout the movie.

The two parents argue over basically every aspect of daily life, but after maternal grandmother Soon-ja comes to live with the Yis, tensions pause for a short bit. It’s interesting to see how Monica’s demeanor changes after Soon-ja moves in, at least for a bit, and how Jacob soon follows suit. Anne and David adjust to their new life in Arkansas where most of the other kids are white Christians who, while a bit blunt with their words, are kids just like the Yis. The family has to persevere through various tribulations as the movie progresses, and Monica and Jacob find their relationship stretched thin.

“Minari” is all about family. Monica and Jacob have differing worldviews, the movie revolves around their tension, and their struggles are painfully human and real. With the familial theme, the movie touches on different stages of assimilation in the family as well: Soon-ja has not assimilated to American culture at all and is unfamiliar with cultural norms, while Monica and Jacob have forcefully assimilated to fit in with their job culture and new life, and Anne and David are fully assimilated while still knowing the Korean language. Though Anne and David are content with becoming American children, their parents are insecure over their Westernized children. The different levels of assimilation make for compelling character interactions between the main cast and gives audiences an interesting look into the experiences of second generation immigrants.

The soundtrack, composed by Emile Mosseri, is used sparingly to pack an additional punch at climactic scenes. Many arguments between Jacob and Monica have little to no music behind them, accentuating the tension and awkwardness of the situation while also helping the viewer sympathize with the children as their parents argue in front of them. On the other hand, music is often used at scenes of growth, like when Soon-ja and David go to plant the titular Minari seeds, or “water celery.” Overall, Lee Isaac Chung clearly knew where music should and should not go during a movie, and the results make for an engaging audio design.

The acting itself also elevates the movie. The actual script is sparing at times where it’s expected to be packed, like in arguments between Jacob and Monica. While this would usually be detrimental, the mannerisms and body language of Yeun and Ye-ri enhance every scene the two interact in. Yuh-jung’s performance characterizes Soon-ja well. She makes it easy to get invested in her character, and her energy can be felt clearly. The child actors are also excellent and have a good grasp on what they’re doing in terms of acting. They’re effective at portraying their characters, especially for their age.

Throughout “Minari,” biases and ideals are explored through the lens of the main cast. The characters have unique morals and visions of their lives, and Chung thoughtfully shows how these ideas impact their daily lives and often clash with each other. The narrative works to dismantle Monica’s way of focusing on the present and Jacob’s way of focusing on the future, as well as demonstrating how people should be flexible with their standards. With the use of a compelling soundtrack and great overall direction, Lee Isaac Chung weaves a memorable story.