The husband wants to be his own boss. The wife just wants to make sure the
family is safe and secure, physically and financially. The son has a heart
condition that prevents him from really enjoying his childhood, and the daughter
worries that the kids in school will think her family is poor. The grandmother
is, well, pretty content wherever she is, as long she has her playing cards and
an opponent to call her favorite curse word.
We get a sense of all of these characters—their hopes and dreams, what drives
them, their strengths and their shortcomings—in Minari, writer/director Lee
Isaac Chung's straightforward but complex drama about a Korean family that tries
their hands at—and try each other over the course of—starting a farm. The film
doesn't have much by way of plot, but it doesn't need it. Chung knows that drama
isn't in what happens or how many external complications and obstacles can arise
over the course of the story. It's within the hearts and minds of characters,
who seem like normal and real and wholly relatable people, and, more
importantly, how those desires and thoughts clash with other characters,
possessing their own wants and needs. It's a basic concept, of course, but think
of how many movies seem to go out of their way to avoid such a basic truth about
drama. We often get spectacle or melodrama or some gimmick of a premise, but
Chung's film is pretty daring in how absolutely spare it is.
There's a family, going about their daily lives, and there's a farm in rural
Arkansas—just a big patch of land, where the husband/father sees only
possibility and the wife/mother sees only the potential for financial ruin.
Their home is an old trailer, sitting atop wheels and concrete blocks.
Everything about these people and their situation is so average that the
scenario is instantly recognizable. It draws us in immediately.
Jacob (Steven Yuen) and Monica (Yeri Han) used to live in California with their
two children, David (Alan Kim) and Anne (Noel Kate Cho). There, they identified
the sex of newly hatched chickens. It was enough to get by—to pay for rent and
the bills and all the other necessities. Jacob wanted more, though, so he bought
acres upon acres of land in Arkansas.
The story begins with the family on the road—Jacob in a moving truck and Monica
in a station wagon with the kids. The drama, meanwhile, starts immediately upon
arriving at the family's new home. Jacob looks at the land with a smile full of
optimism. Monica can't get past the view of their new house, which doesn't even
have any stairs for them to get through the doorway.
Chung subtly allows us to take a side in one shot—the first time we see the
interior of the house, with Jacob and Monica turned away from the camera. Some
will think that it's not nearly enough, and others might think that, under the
circumstances, it's not half-bad. As long as one realizes there's a big gap
between those two reactions, the full depth of the drama here should be
It might seem simple—basically a disagreement between a husband and wife over
the course of their family's future. Chung, though, spends the entirety of the
film establishing and exploring how much this disagreement tells us about these
characters and how deep the divisions within these relationships actually go.
For Jacob, this is not just an opportunity to achieve the American Dream in the
1980s. It quickly becomes an obsession, strongly connected, not only to the
financial future of his family, but also to his severe sense of pride (It starts
showing itself quickly, after the new farmer rejects the help of a man with a
divining rod to find water on his own). It might be more about pride than
anything else, if his pronouncement that, if his plans fail, Monica can leave
him, taking the kids with her, is any indication. That statement isn't said in
anger or despair. Jacob says it so matter-of-factly that it seems to sting his
wife even more than if it had an emotional foundation. The coldness chills her
to the core.
Monica keeps working with chickens (although her husband is the faster
identifier, who could make more money doing it but works fewer hours in that
job), keeps trying to get Jacob to see how miserable and worried and alone she
is, and keeps making the point that David, their young son with the heart
condition, might be too far away from the hospital if anything were to happen.
Jacob finally invites his wife's mother Soonja (Yuh-jung Youn) to come from
Korea and live with family, thinking the arrangement will somehow solve all of
With all of this in place, Chung's screenplay simply allows these characters to
continue in their ways, observing with compassion and without any judgment as
the characters become more firmly planted in their positions and the familial
divides expand. On the lighter side, David (played with quiet and endearing
naturalism by Kim) gets into a little feud with his grandmother (delightfully
and then, after a sudden turn, tragically played by Youn with determined grit),
and Jacob's local farmhand Paul (Will Patton), a devoutly religious man,
attempts to convince his boss that faith will bring a good harvest.
On the heavier side, though, we watch as this marriage slowly crumbles (Yuen and
Han play the couple as flip sides of the same coin—quietly allowing all of the
pressure to build until there's nothing left to be said between the two), as
Jacob's stubbornness gets in the way of providing for his family, and as
financial and health concerns continue to pile atop each other. We can see,
understand, and sympathize with both of these characters' positions, and the
devastating thing is watching those divisions reach a stalemate, in which only
one option for their relationship remains.
Everything about the foundation of the story of Minari is simple, but Chung
builds and builds upon it. There are important questions here, primarily about
how we can and should define success. The only ones that genuinely matter,
though, are about these characters, their lives, and what fate they are willing
to make as individuals and, hopefully, as a family.