Lee Isaac Chung's presentation of honest, vulnerable characters guides the audience to the darker side of the American dream.
Before anything starts, let’s take a moment to appreciate A24, the production company that’s brought us phenomenal and exquisite films such as The Lighthouse, Moonlight, and today’s spotlight, Minari in the time of ferocious commercial competition among the streaming-platform colossuses. It’s been no news that Korean culture is influencing the world through films, but Minari has managed to break the audience’s expectation by subverting the popular sophisticated narrative structure and resorting to the slow-paced What’s-Eating-Gilbert-Grape style of American drama back in the 90s.
Minari centers on Jacob Yi (Steven Yeun), a Korean-American who has travelled with his family to Arkansas to start a farm as he explores the values of his personal success and family. Lee Isaac Chung certainly deserves enormous credit for the narrative as he de-dramatises the story by concentrating on Yi’s daily life — the couple’s drearily repetitive chicken-sexing jobs, Jacob’s father-and-son interaction with David, the family’s visit to the church — and, most realistically, the financial difficulties they encounter as immigrants. Minari does not attempt to glorify contemporary mass migration toward the States in the 80s or shy away from every immigrant family’s struggles of searching a place for themselves in this promising land of freedom. Instead it starkly presents the harsh conditions Jacob faces.
The cinematography and mise-en-scène are undoubtedly inextricable elements in Minari. While the film takes place amidst the obsolete nothingness in the rural, the camera perfectly captures the looming elegance and invigorating nature of the greenery – you can almost smell the petrichor innocently lingering in the air as the characters wade through the swaying grass. The film first portrays the States as a dreamland, referring to the hopeful American dream whom every foreigner had come to pursue, and soon conflicts that mirage through Jacob’s confrontation with his wife and sheer luck.
Worthy of note, a subtle relationship between the Yis and white Americans is depicted in Minari. Reading the description of the film, I subconsciously expected racism to be discussed in forms of discrimination against Jacob. However, all the characters are rather friendly toward the Yis and accept them quite easily, which is more or less unrealistic, or at least seems to involve an artificially selective process of character types in the purpose of not distracting Jacob’s personal struggles by racial hatred (which could be regarded as lazy writing). Opposing this, Jacob holds an untrusting attitude toward his only friend/partner, Mr. Harlan, which authentically shows a man’s natural response to strangers when his family has come to an unfamiliar place all alone. So perhaps, the absence of racism in the film was designed to be a device that furthers the delineation of Jacob’s personality as he becomes a lone wolf looking up to his goal and beginning to neglect those around him.
Steven Yeun’s remarkable acting is what renders his character so three-dimensional, so convincing. As Jacob, he allows the audience to see the late 20th century through the perspective of an outsider, and through his eyes we might just be able to understand what a family can be. No compromise for a fairytale ending, but a raw, naked yet hopeful reflection that is reminiscent of Italian neorealism.
Minari (2020), directed by Lee Isaac Chung, is distributed in the UK by Altitude Film Entertainment, certificate PG-13. It’s available for streaming on selected digital platforms. Watch the trailer below: