For director Lee Isaac Chung, creating Minari was a process of excavation. It opens and closes with memories from Chung’s childhood: beginning with the family’s first sight of their new home in Arkansas and ending with the grandmother’s minari patch, thriving on the outskirts of their property. This oenanthe javanica plant, the film’s namesake and a herb that can grow just about anywhere according to grandmother Soonja (Yuh-Jung Youn) becomes a symbol of roots, resilience, and the little things that hold us together when everything threatens to fall apart.
These origins in autobiography shine through from Minari’s first scene. Korean immigrants, Jacob Yi (Steven Yeun) and Monica Yi (Yeri Han) have just moved their family cross country from California to rural Arkansas. Unbeknownst to Monica, their plot of land greatly outsizes their tiny new mobile home and David’s agricultural ambitions extend beyond a simple backyard garden. “There’s this image I have of showing up at a trailer home with my parents, and my mom not having been told that we were going to move there,” said Chung in an online Q&A for Heartland Film Festival.
As the camera lingers on the cluttered interior of the trailer home (with A24’s signature sublime cinematography, here helmed by Lachlan Milne), nothing in the frame goes unnoticed—yet nothing is extraneous, either. Every inclusion, from the sepia family photos to the bottles of Mountain Dew (it’s healthy, it comes from the mountains), creates a space that is lived-in and real, reflecting Chung’s memories. The setting’s neutral and earthy tones, too, create a study in contrasts when backgrounding the characters’ primary-colored clothing: bright reds, blues, and yellows against the warm interior and lush green fields. This difference allows both the subjects and their environments to take center stage.
Steven Yeun, in particular, is fantastic as a man carrying the weight of fatherhood and expectation. The Yi’s are chicken sexers by trade, though David’s dream is to begin farming and selling Korean vegetables to fellow immigrants far-flung in the Ozarks, longing for a taste of home. He’s torn between two futures. One includes continued factory work, a stable income for his family, and treatment for his son David’s (Alan Kim) heart murmur. His farming venture promises a far less sure future—but one that might give his children a reason to look up to him, Jacob believes.
Chung says that seeing Yeun’s powerful stoic performance helped him view his own father in a new light. Like Jacob, Chung’s father had to carry burdens obscured to him by childhood: “He had a lot of worries weighing on him that I didn’t understand when I was that age.” Many of the memories Minari draws upon are from when Chung was David’s age, lending the film’s world the dual lens of innocence and hindsight. The two work in tandem: the way in which Chung imbues Minari with years of reflection while still retaining the humor and lightness of a child’s perspective is nothing short of magical.
In that vein, Minari bucks the age-old adage ‘never work with children or animals’ by centering much of the film around young breakout star Alan Kim. One of the reasons directors tend to shy away from using child actors, Chung argues, is that it strips away some of their control over the creative process. But what Chung lost in control is vastly made up for by the honesty and spontaneity Kim brings to his performance.
Kim’s debut role is made even more impressive by the fact that he acts across from South Korean legend Youn Yuh-jung, who is spirited and sly as David’s grandmother. The unconditional love and mirth she shows toward David, even as he complains that she’s not a real grandma, but one that swears and “smells like Korea,” endears the audience to her. Watching the two play off of each other and develop a relationship is one of the great joys of Minari—and their interactions lay the emotional groundwork for the film’s harrowing climax.
Minari has been praised for both its singularity and universality—a seemingly irreconcilable narrative. Chung suggests that maybe one is born of the other. “I know that not many people grew up as Korean-Americans in Arkansas, you know, on a farm,” he says, laughing. “It’s such a specific thing that somehow people find their own selves in it.” Minari, within the intimate four walls of the mobile home, through its distinctive yet recognizable characters, refuses to paint the human experience with broad strokes. Through and through, the story reads as personal—and it’s this tender smallness that makes Minari feel so large.