“Minari” is the nexus between Immigration and the American Dream

“Minari” illustrates that the stories of first-generation Americans and immigrant families deserve to be heard.


Alan S. Kim, Steven Yeun, Noel Cho, and Yeri Han in Minari. Photo: Josh Ethan Johnson/A24

Darlene Antoine, Features Editor

The film “Minari” embodies a soft rainbow that breaks out of the clouds after an onslaught of rain during a sunshower. It is utterly breathtaking and moving, film director Lee Isaac Chung has intertwined the difficulties of immigrant experiences with bits of humor that can make you crack a smile.

“Minari” centers on a South Korean family named Yi who sought after the American dream by moving from California during the Reagan years. They set forth on their journey hoping to make a profit off of farming in rural Arkansas.

Chung’s film is a semi-autobiographical take on his life as the film mirrors his own family of Korean immigrants in Arkansas in the 1980s. The film’s distinctive name Minari is derived from a vegetable in Korean culture that grows strong regardless of the conditions, serving as a metaphor for the determined Yi family.

The ambitious family of four begin anew as the father, Jacob (Steven Yeun) takes on the challenge of growing Korean vegetables to sell in the city. However, his wife Monica (Yeri Han) isn’t all too happy about their ghastly mobile home out in the middle of nowhere. Yet their kids 7-year old David (Alan Kim), who suffers from a heart condition and tries not to wet the bed, and his older sister, Anne (Noel Kate Cho) try to make the best of their new surroundings.

Both Jacob and Monica work at a chicken hatchery, determining the sex of chicks to make ends meet as the farm grows. While the sun-dappled fields, chirping of crickets, and swaying trees during the golden hour suggest promises of success with just a willingness to work hard, farming is tricky for Jacob and his war-damaged companion Paul (Will Patton), due to the complex irrigation system.

Yet, finding water seems to be one of many of Jacob’s problems as his wife Monica grows increasingly lonely and miserable due to the change in their surroundings.

The film takes a turn as Monica’s mother Soonja, played by Yuh-jung Youn, who, as little David puts it, is “not a real grandma” because she doesn’t bake cookies. Instead, Soonja comes toting gifts and anchovies to ease the tension. Soonja is foul-mouthed, sarcastic, carefree, and downright silly as she squabbles back and forth with her grandson.

From grandma’s watching wrestling on TV, to playing cards, to kids chugging huge bottles of Mountain Dew, “Minari” is full of lighthearted scenes. Unlike most films, Yi’s are spared any vulgar account of discrimination as the family is relatively accepted at the local church with a warm Christian welcome. There are brief instances of discrimination as David is asked why his face is “so flat” and Anne is asked to listen to gibberish and to stop until they “hit something in your language.” Yet, these seem to resolve as soon as they occur through friendships and dismissal.

However, Chung doesn’t ignore the painful troubles that lie within the Yi home as Monica and Jacob are at odds with how they want to live and who they want to be. Monica fears that her husband cares more about the farm than his family, and she yearns to have her old life back for familiarity and security. Whereas Jacob is set on a fresh start in Arkansas, he is ambitious and doesn’t desire to look back on the past.

“Minari” manages to represent the bittersweet struggle of immigration life in America. It is a distinctly American story as it moves between loss, love, culture, and tradition. Nonetheless, Chung’s film reminds us that there are countless stories of individuals and families who are fighting to not only find a place to call home but also find themselves in the process.

Darlene Antoine is the Features Editor for the University Press. For information regarding this or other stories, email her at [email protected]