Film Review: Minari (2020), The Isolation and Connection of the 2nd Generation American

James Shih

Movie poster from Minari (Plan B Entertainment/A24)

Minari is an American film written and directed by Lee Isaac Chung and stars Yeri Han, Steven Yeun, Alan Kim, Noel Kate Cho, Youn Yuh-jung, and Will Patton. The film is scheduled for a limited theatrical release on February 12th, 2021 on the Lunar New Year (celebrated in Korea as Seollal).

Ever since Minari world premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival (where it won the U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize and U.S. Dramatic Audience Award) demand and hype for the film–especially within the Asian American community–has been at a fervent high with virtual passes for screenings consistently selling out.

I was able to watch it as part of a free limited virtual release on Korean American Day, January 13th, 2021. It lived up to the hype. The film centers on the Yi family, a Korean American family that moves to rural Arkansas with the father, Jacob Yi (Steven Yeun), chasing his American Dream of leaving the chicken sexing business to start his own farm in the 1980s. The film has multiple perspectives, shifting between the parents and the children, but the audience experiences most of the film through the son, David (played by the adorable 7 year-old Alan Kim).

Adapted from Lee Isaac Chung's own personal memories, David is a 2nd generation Korean American who suffers from a weak heart condition. From David, as well the brief insight we get into his older sister Anne (Noel Kate Cho), we experience the awkward intersection of what it means to be Korean and American and having to negotiate the two cultures from a young age. The film is a heartfelt story with humor and humanity. It captures authentically what Steven Yeun referred to in an interview about the film: the painful distancing and isolation many immigrant children feel towards to their parents and their parent's culture.

Myself as a 2nd generation Taiwanese American could not help but connect with this experience at a visceral level. Watching Minari made me think about my own father and his ambitions coming to the U.S. Mr. Yi in the film carries such high expectations of himself and what it means to be a man. This pressure that he puts on himself blinds him from the connections that are right in front of him. Relationships are strained by Mr. Yi's American Dream and is the central point of conflict with his wife Monica Yi (Yeri Han) who wears her disappointment on her face when she first arrive at their new home, a glorified trailer.

What the film also does expertly well is navigate through harsh concepts of masculinity: as a man you have to provide for the family, your worth is your work. At the start of the film, David asks his father innocently–after separating the female chicks out to be raised, where do the male chicks go? Mr. Yi, without euphemism, points towards the dark smoke coming out of the nearby chimney and says (paraphrasing), "Male chicks meat taste bad and they can't lay eggs. They're useless [...] so David, we have to be useful." The analogy of the "male chicks" and what it means to be a man is a painful one that myself and many men can relate to.

Despite the weight of his father's words, actor Alan Kim brings to the character David and the film an incredible lightness and innocence that is so authentic and reminds me of such performances as Yang Yang (Jonathan Chang) in Yi Yi. In one hilarious, yet familiarly painful scene to those who were raised with corporal punishment, Mr. Yi tells David to find a stick to be disciplined with after David plays a gross joke on his grandmother Soon-ja (played by the incredible Youn Yuh-jung). I won't spoil it, but the scene becomes a turning point for when the grandson and the grandmother make amends and their relationship deepens.

Soon-ja is not the archetypal doting grandmother who bakes cookies but instead she's a crass, loud-mouthed jokester who expresses love in her own way. For the sister, the film gives us glimpses into Anne's awkward experiences growing up, such as when a white girl at church asks Anne if any of the random sounds she's making is Korean. A poignant moment of brother-sister bonding is when she instructs her brother to make "do not fight" paper airplanes when the parents are arguing with each other, thus showcasing her veteran skills of peacemaking as the older sibling.

Steven Yeun and Yeri Han have such good chemistry as a couple in a rocky relationship. There's a palpable tension whenever the both of them are on screen. Han in particular is able to say so much with just her facial expressions and mannerisms and Yeun's bubbling intensity may lead to him being the first Asian American male to be nominated for a Best Actor Oscar.

To be nitpicky, sometimes I feel the perpsectives shifts a bit too much between the characters and at times I'm unsure of which narrative to land on. The arc of David facing his illness and trying to overcome it, may need a little more emphasis to drive home that point.

Director Lee Isaac Chung shared in a group interview with Sandra Oh that the film came out of a writing session he did trying to jot down all the memories he could from the age his daughter is now (6 years old) to adulthood. Coming from a science background, he would then edit these writings and insert them into an excel sheet allowing him to play around with their position to see how it changes the emotional impact of the story.

After completing the script, he made it clear to his actors that they were not stand-ins for his own family, they were the fictional Yi family. He wanted them to bring in their own interpretations of the characters in order to breathe life into this family. In the same interview, Steven Yeun shares an emotional journey he had playing the character and how it made him connect more deeply with his own father's experience coming to the U.S.

This wholly personal process that director Chung and his actors took has produced an authentic, emotional portrait of a Korean American family trying to make it in America that I found wholly relatable and incredibly well done. As an Asian American, this film makes me feel proud at the strides that Asian American cinema is making and I look forward to the films to come.

From top left: Yeri Han, Steven Yeun, Lee Isaac Chung (director). From bottom left: Youn Yuh-jung, Alan S. Kim, Noel Kate Cho. Photo by Taylor Jewell/Invision/AP

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I enjoy writing about film/TV, travel, slice of life, language, Asian American issues, and other interests. Thanks for reading! Please leave a comment or message if you have any thoughts to share =).

Los Angeles, CA

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