The American Dream is a term that has been around since at least the early 1930s, although one could argue the idea started with the Declaration of Independence itself. For almost 250 years, millions have looked at the United States as a place where anyone can become successful if they just work hard enough, although the reality of that idea is not quite that simple.
Nevertheless, that idea is at the heart of Minari, which follows a Korean family as they move to Arkansas in the 1980s for somewhere they can call their own. Leading the way is the father, Jacob (Steven Yeun), who’s found jobs for both him and his wife, Monica (Yeri Han), at a local poultry plant as a means to an end of starting their own Korean vegetable farm.
The family, which also includes daughter Anne (Noel Cho), son David (Alan S. Kim), and soon grandma Soonja (Youn Yuh-jung), has a variety of difficulties getting their dream started, including spartan living conditions, a lack of easily accessible natural water on their land, and more.
What the film doesn’t include is much animosity toward a Korean family establishing themselves in a mostly white area. There is some casual racism displayed, but for the most part, people are welcoming of them, especially Paul (Will Patton), who helps out with the farm.
Written and directed by Lee Isaac Chung, the film derives most of its drama from the family’s changing dynamics. These include Monica’s frustration with Jacob’s stubbornness, concern over David’s lifelong heart problems, and how Anne both helps and hurts things after her arrival.
Somewhat unexpectedly, Chung mostly eschews the big moments that films like these typically contain. There are a lot of signals that indicate the plot is headed in a certain direction, but Chung decides to go the less-obvious route the majority of the time. This allows the focus to remain on the characters, and you really feel like you know all of them by the time the film ends.
The flip side of that is not all that much happens over the course of the film. Anyone waiting for that big twist that will change the family’s fate one way or the other will be left wanting. The film is a character study through-and-through, and it succeeds mightily at that.
Yeun, who’s starred in The Walking Dead, Sorry to Bother You, and Okja, is the undisputed star of the film, carrying the story as his character struggles to make his dream a reality. Han is his equal in many of the scenes, demonstrating the quiet fury of her character. Yuh-jung is a delight as the character who causes the most disruption, as is Kim with his cherubic face and joyful demeanor.
Minari may not offer the emotional release of many other films oriented around families, but with its in-depth look at its various characters, it more than makes up for that lack. Where it comes down on the attainability of the American Dream is up for interpretation, but the journey is one worth taking.
Minari opened in select theaters on February 12. It will debut on premium video on demand on February 26.