There are a number of great films about the immigrant experience. There are perhaps even more about chasing some version of “the American Dream.” And, as Daily Yonder readers know, there are many great films about rural life. What makes the new film Minari, written and directed by Lee Isaac Chung, so special is that it’s a rich story about all three.
The film, releasing in theaters on February 12 and digitally on demand February 26, follows Jacob Yi and his Korean American family as they relocate from California to rural Arkansas. From the very first frame, the challenges and opportunities they face in adjusting to rural life are captured in striking detail. In the opening scene, as the family completes its journey to the Ozarks, you can feel the apprehension of Jacob’s wife, Monica as she staggers into the family’s new mobile home. Meanwhile, Jacob (Steven Yeun of The Walking Dead, Burning, Okja, and Sorry to Bother You), wastes no time helping his young son David admire their new plot of land, explaining what the soil and water represent and make possible.
Minari is a film that pulls no punches, but also takes no cheap shots. Rural America as portrayed here is a place of great promise, but also one of great peril. In a less well-drawn story, the threats the family faces would be simplified and expressed in broad strokes, the villain rampant racism and xenophobia perhaps, or a generic sense of economic and social desperation. There are elements of those challenges at play here, to be sure, but they are depicted with nuance and care.
Early in the film, a few local children at church make ill-considered, insensitive comments about the Yi family’s appearance and language. Later in the story, David has a sleepover at the home of one of those same children, where they play and pal around as friends. Moments of small-mindedness or out-of-touch thinking exist right alongside moments of great kindness and generosity of spirit. The latter is perhaps exemplified by the character Paul, an eccentric community-member and veteran of the Korean War. Performed with gusto by actor Will Patton, Paul is eager to forge a friendship with the Yi family and lend a hand to support Jacob’s farming endeavors.
Similar to what I wrote about another rural film, the Peanut Butter Falcon, both the major and minor characters in Minari are granted a measure of humanity. In both the film’s direction and its individual performances, none of these rural people come through as unquestionably good or bad nor are they boiled down to their best or worst moments or behaviors. They simply feel human and in necessary relationship with one another.
The same can be said of the rural landscapes themselves. They are at times beautiful and bountiful, and at others deeply dangerous or stubbornly deficient. The Yi children revel in the sprawling playground of the countryside one moment and find themselves seeking shelter from vicious storms later, ultimately finding some small comfort in a detail I too can remember from my own small-town childhood: the distinction between a Tornado Watch and Warning. Likewise, you get to share in each triumphant milestone Jacob achieves as an aspiring farmer while also seeing up close each burden and stumbling block that comes with them.
Even the simple act of driving on country roads and the ongoing trials of managing distance and isolation are captured thoughtfully and effectively here. Monica, played by Korean actress Han Ye-ri, expresses concerns about being far away from the nearest hospital. Whether it’s rural healthcare or immigration and identity, the film doesn’t grandstand or make any sweeping pronouncements concerning these matters; it simply folds these realities into the story being told, like in the aforementioned scene in a rural church or another capturing a necessary trip to the nearest big city hospital.
The clear-eyed perspective on rural life found in Minari is no surprise when you consider the film was inspired by Chung’s own rural childhood. During a panel conversation that followed a screening of the movie, Chung described how he began development of the story by simply writing down specific memories of what life was like when he was as old as his young daughter is now. Minari provides an authentic rural story because it comes from a place of real, honest experience.
More Rural Reviews
There is a moment in the film when the Yi children discuss amongst themselves whether they’d prefer to leave Arkansas and move back to California. They don’t have an obvious answer. They’re not necessarily sure if they love their new life, but, even in their youthful naivete, they seem to recognize their rural home is now part of who they are. The ending likewise offers no easy answers or resolutions about what’s next for the family, but the journey is resonant because it focuses on the family’s resilience and relationships as central to who they are.
That’s something I expect rural audiences will especially relate to, and these themes have far-reaching appeal, regardless of one’s personal connections to the rural or Korean American elements of the story. Minari won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at last year’s Sundance Film Festival and is expected to garner similar buzz during this year’s Hollywood award season.
We should relish such an outcome because Minari is rural representation and moviemaking done right. However Lee Isaac Chung felt about his childhood in Arkansas when he was living it, his recognition of his rural roots as a core part of his identity has resulted in a wonderful film worthy of going home to.
Minari will be released in select theaters nationwide on February 12, with a video on demand (VOD) release to follow on February 26. The Daily Yonder received an invite to a virtual screening of Minari, hosted by production company A24 and followed by a panel discussion featuring the filmmaker and cast. Access to the screening did not influence the Daily Yonder’s opinions or coverage decisions concerning the film.