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‘Minari’: Asian-American dreams in technicolor

| Monday, March 15, 2021

Maggie Klaers | The Observer

“Minari,” produced by A24, is the story of the Korean-American Yi family who moved to rural Arkansas in the ‘80s in pursuit of their American dream. The film’s plot moves slowly but makes use of stunning cinematography to tell an evocative but often neglected American story. 

“Minari,” like other immigrant stories, details how difficult life can be in America. The Yi family moves to a mobile home in deserted, rural Arkansas where Jacob, the father of the family, dreams of having his own farm to grow Korean vegetables so that he and his wife, Monica, can quit their day jobs at the chicken hatchery. Monica, a pragmatist, disapproves of Jacob’s dream and worries about being able to provide for their children, especially her young son, David, who has a hole in his heart. 

The tension between the spouses is palpable through Steven Yeun and Han Ye-Ri’s brilliant performances. Each subtle look of disappointment or choked-up shout conveys a deep clash between the stereotypically American ideas of individuality and risk-taking and the typically Asian values of community and being economical. The souring of the spouses’ relationship is a metaphor for the dark side of the American dream. In one conversation, Jacob muses to his wife about how when their lives in Korea were difficult, they said they would come to America to “save each other.” Later, after an argument, Monica sarcastically says, “We can’t save each other, but money can.”

“Minari” explores these themes about the immigrant experience in a slice-of-life style. The tensions between the characters simmer for a long time with conflicts only escalating at the very end. The cinematography is artistic with gorgeous montages of the verdant vegetation of the farm, the blue open skies, vibrant aubergines and cucumber crops representing freedom and abundance. These montages are overlaid with orchestral music, combined with the sounds of people humming and crickets chirping, making the scenes feel whimsical, like there is a particular magic to Jacob’s agricultural dreams coming true. This is in direct contrast to the dimly lit scenes inside the Yi family’s mobile home, with its stark walls and sink that rarely has running water. The artful cinematography seems to reflect the idea that dreams come at a price. 

In a time when COVID-19 has contributed to increased violence and racism against Asian-Americans, the movie feels topical despite being set in the 1980s. In the film, the Yi children face a lot of microaggressions from other kids, with one boy asking David, “Why is your face so flat?” Even more disappointing, however, is the racism that the Yi children have internalized, complaining that their grandmother is not a “real grandma” because she has a “Korea smell” and can’t bake cookies. 

These issue spill into the real world as well. “Minari’s” pathos feels so authentic because it is loosely based on director Lee Isaac Chung’s childhood and because he chose to script this unmistakably American story mostly in Korean. “Minari” has already won the Golden Globe award for the Best Foreign Language Film and is nominated for several other awards. However, in the case of the Golden Globes, films in the Best Foreign Language category cannot be nominated for the Best Picture category. This raises questions about what we have collectively decided to accept as ”American“. A similar story about the American dream in a rural setting with an English-language script would arbitrarily have, at least in the eyes of the Golden Globes, more potential to succeed than “Minari.” In the end, the film is a testament to Asian-Americans taking the space to candidly represent their unique struggles and stories as a minority group, but it seems the world is yet to catch up.

Title: “Minari”

Director: Lee Isaac Chung

Starring: Steven Yeun, Han Ye-Ri, Alan S. Kim

Genre: Drama

If you liked: “Tigertail,” “The Farewell”

Shamrocks:  4 out of 5 

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