Movie Review: ‘Minari’

Abigail Lee


Released on VOD on February 26, 2021, Minari is a poignant family drama that unconventionally explores the American Dream. 

Minari follows a Korean-American family in the 1980s that relocates from California to Arkansas as the father, Jacob Yi (Steven Yeun), starts his own farm. Uprooted from the immigrant community and populated infrastructure of California to a rural expanse, Jacob’s wife Monica (Han Ye-ri) feels that their agricultural venture is both isolating and a financial gamble. Shown through the eyes of the youngest child, David (Alan Kim), the film traces the family’s navigation of the unpredictable, arduous nature of this disconnected lifestyle, as well as their increasingly diverging ideas about what defines a home.    

Inspired by his own childhood, writer-director Lee Isaac Chung fashions a film with observational subtlety. For the most part, the film evokes such culturally connotative routines, family dynamics, and behaviors that it feels richly anchored in truth. Yet, there are also moments when Chung’s held-back, simplistic style—while successfully avoiding melodrama—results in vague narrative contextualization. 

The film has sprawling shots of the Arkansas landscape, periodic images of Jacob’s growing vegetables, and cursory encounters with white church-goers and fellow poultry workers. Although beautifully shot, these scenes are ambiguously encompassing and lack a sense of tangible immersion. Despite the rural move being such a disruptive force for the family, the establishing of setting feels mechanical and sparse rather than emotionally propulsive. 

Still, Chung’s understatedness succeeds with the quiet, everyday interactions of the characters. The simplicity of his direction allows space to discover the range of motivating desires, responses, and negotiations that arise from cultural displacement. The family’s evolving tensions are built without gusto or superficiality.  

A family harvesting their way into financial prosperity may sound typical, but this is a rarely-told version of the tale. For the Yi’s, the farm becomes a prism through which different interpretations of the American Dream are refracted. Jacob sees it as the pinnacle of their immigrant journey, a way to explore all that the U.S. has to offer them. Monica is understandably worried about the lack of security the farm poses, not just financially, but also in terms of community and culture. 

The question about what risks are worth taking for one’s family drive the film, but ultimately the American Dream is less the subject of interrogation than a conduit for the nuances of the characters. The humanity of the family is at the heart of the film. There are no grand conclusions about the dream itself. 

The film is titled after its central metaphor, the Asian herb minari. In the movie, the grandmother Soonja moves in with the family as a compromise between the fighting parents. She brings with her a variety of gifts and trinkets from Korea, including minari seeds that she plants in a creek near the Yi’s home. Gradually, the herb flourishes. 

Minari is full of these small wonders that take root in family life. Compelling and sensitively told, its reflective honesty is rare in these times.