The opening scene of “Minari” is simple yet telling. The Yi family drives their moving truck through rural Arkansas, hesitant disgust on the mother’s face, eager expectation on her husband’s. They stop in the middle of a grassy enclosure and the camera pans to what the family sees — a mobile home, covered in drab gray and brown paint. The children run out, exclaiming, “Look! Our house has wheels!”
What better symbol of false hope, the American Dream thrown into disarray, than a shabbily painted mobile home in the middle of nowhere? As the children frantically jump into the house to start exploring, their mother hides her face with her hands, wisps of her black hair barely concealing the tears in her eyes. This wasn’t what she was promised. Dull resignation settling over her face, she clumsily climbs inside.
“Minari” — directed by Lee Isaac Chung (“Munyurangabo”) — follows the Yi family, Korean immigrants who move from California to Arkansas for hopes of better pay for their profession, chicken sexing (sorting female chicks from male chicks for egg production). Jacob (Steven Yeun, “Burning”) dreams of starting a farm, and convinces his wife Monica (Han Yeri, “Worst Woman”) to come along, disguising his grand schemes under the pretense of a “garden.” Their children, David (Alan S. Kim in his debut film) and Anne (Noel Cho in her debut film) are enthusiastic about moving, but bored out of their minds when they finally reach Arkansas. Monica’s mother Soonja (Yuh Jung Youn, “Woman of Fire”) moves from South Korea to stay with them, and the tale of the chaotic and hilarious Yi family kicks off.
“Minari” may have a conventional plot — immigrant stories of chasing the American dream are plentiful in film — but this one is executed to perfection. Dark, somber scenes are complemented (often times immediately) by heartwarming family shots, so much so that I felt I was living right alongside the Yi’s, watching everything play out in real time. I walked out of the theater knowing that “Minari” would make it big, and it did, winning the arguable top accolade of Sundance, the U.S. Dramatic grand jury prize and the Audience Award. A24 plans to release the film in theaters later this year, where I’m confident it will win over the hearts of many.
After a whole weekend of watching Sundance films, the animated performances of the cast of “Minari” set it apart from its competitors. Kim may be one of the most talented child actors I’ve seen; every outburst or facial expression sent the theater peeling with laughter. The interplay between Kim and his grandmother is precious to watch, reminding me of the cultural barriers my own grandmother faces when she visits the U.S. from India. “She’s not a real Grandma!” David exclaims multiple times throughout the film, a genius and telling line. David wants his grandmother to bake apple pies while wearing a dainty yellow apron, while Soonja proudly relates that she can’t cook and sits criss crossed in front of the TV to watch the UFC fight instead.
“Minari” can seem like an endless reel of anecdotal moments, but none of them take away from each other. I still chuckle when I remember Anne asking her mother in horror, “Do we burn all our trash now?” as she watches the most recent addition erupt into flames. “Yes, it was better in the city, right?” her mother answers in response before scuttling away outside of the fire’s reach. Or when Monica bursts into tears of joy when her mother pulls out chili powder and anchovies from her suitcase, reminding me of my own grandmother bringing mustard oil and costume jewelry from India. Aside from some unrealistic racism (David’s white friend asks him, “Why is your face so flat?” and a girl at Anne’s church bubbles out a refrain of “ching chong” and other vaguely Asian sounding words in the hopes of landing one in Korean), each scene is like a fulfilling chapter of your favorite book as a child.
That’s exactly how I felt as I walked out into the snowy Utah afternoon, like I’d re-read some memorable excerpts from “A Tree Grows In Brooklyn,” a beloved read as a child that continues to occupy a large space of my heart. “Minari” will make you laugh, cry and scream, but above all, it’ll make you love.