Written & Directed by Lee Isaac Chung
I personally find the American Dream to be a complete fantasy, and it basically always was. This fantasy of bootstrap independence leading to wealth & success is a myth. People achieve wealth in the United States on the backs of workers who toil for very little. Now, this is what our culture labels as “success,” but I would that most of us know that the acquisition of money, while definitely alleviating stress tied to providing for our families, crosses a line at some point into exploitation. I would like to define success as creating a life collectively with family and friends. But for so many native-born people and immigrants, the allure of that capitalist myth is so strong they get lost in it and become consumed.
Jacob Yi (Steven Yeun) has moved his family to a multi-acre piece of land in Arkansas, where he plans to start a farm that will make him independently secure, his own boss. His wife, Monica, is incredibly skeptical as they move into a double-wide home, and she begins to think about the security and community they have left behind in California. Jacob’s two children are very adaptable, and his son Alan, about seven years old, is curious and wants to help out. Alan has a heart murmur that his parents are worried about, and as a result, prohibits him from anything close to physical exertion. A dramatic shift occurs when Jacob’s grandmother, Soon-JA, comes to live with the family. Alan has no memories of her and immediately questions how she can be a grandma when she doesn’t make cookies and curses. She’s unphased, and the two go back and forth. Meanwhile, Jacob struggles to get his farm going and can feel his wife slipping away from him in the process.
My apprehension going into this was how the culture clash elements would be handled. I think so often in films about immigrants, it’s done in a clunky, didactic way. Lee Isaac Chung avoids that and refuses to paint anyone as a caricature, neither the Yi family nor the people they meet in Arkansas. Everyone feels layered and multi-dimensional. These feel like real people, maybe if sometimes eccentric, they are never carried away with their quirks. Jacob is incredibly complex, caught up in an image of an American man that he so desperately wants to be. He dresses like a rural farmer and seems to have knowledge of this agricultural life.
Actor Will Patton plays Paul, an evangelical Christian who helps Jacob cultivate his crops and gives him advice on the best ways to farm the land. I was expecting Paul to end up being some sort of caricature, but Chung allows him to be true to who he is but never make Paul a joke. Paul prays over the crops and blesses the houses after Soon-ja claims to see evil spirits. Chung does the same thing with every person that the Yi family encounters, and it was a very satisfying aspect of the picture.
Actress Yuh-Jung Soon is the star of the show, though as Soon-ja. She constantly surprised me with her reactions to things and really embodies an unconventional grandmother. Over time we learn she is used to urban living, has a gambling streak, and loves to mess with people. Soon-ja is also always watching over Jacob and Monica, trying to steer them in the right direction. A very telling scene occurs during a church visit where Monica puts a $100 bill in the collection plate. Soon-ja slyly removes it as the plate comes her way, knowing Monica meant well but that the family is struggling and needs it more.
Minari definitely has some moments where it loses the plot and meanders. I did think it might have been a little too long and needed a bit of focus. The first and third acts are perfect, but moments in the second act are hit and miss. Chung is an extremely talented director and seems very confident with the camera and his actors. I felt I was always being surprised by the characters but was able to reflect and realize that their choices made perfect sense with what we knew about them. It’s a level of sensitivity not often glimpsed in many films. This is an immigrant’s story about the dangers of following that American Dream, losing sight of what matters, and trying to salvage things when they begin to collapse.