‘Minari’ Sundance Review: A Poignant Portrait of an Immigrant Family Pursuing the American Dream

Time after time, we’ve learned that the concept of an “American Dream” looks like two totally different things for white Americans and people of color. Despite this, underrepresented populations and immigrants will give everything for their “dream” to be fulfilled.

This dream is a portion of the story of Minari, an exquisitely-crafted family drama from director Lee Issac Chung.

Steven Yeun appears in Minari by Lee Isaac Chung, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival
Steven Yeun and Alan S. Kim appear in Minari by Lee Isaac Chung, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival | A24 / Sundance Institute

A Korean-American family heads to Arkansas for a new start in ‘Minari’

The film revolves around Jacob (Steven Yeun), the patriarch of a Koren-American family moving from California to down south in Arkansas. Back in California, he and his wife, Monica (Han Ye-ri), were chicken sexers. Jacob’s goal is to have his own farm in Arkansas so they won’t have to be sexers for that much longer.

However, when they arrive at their 50-acre land in the south, Monica is appalled. This isn’t what she thought they were getting into. However, Joseph attempts to assuage her fears and say this is just the beginning. The land they are on will build a future for their kids, Anne and David (Noel Cho and Alan S. Kim).

The tense dynamic between Jacob and Monica is amplified once the couple comes to a proposition — they can stay in Arkansas if Monica’s mother, Soonja (Youn Yuh-jung), comes from Korea to stay with them and help take care of the house and kids. David has never met Soonja, and there is a load of cultural differences between the two. And though eventually the grandson and grandmother reach mutual understanding, Jacob’s plans at building a better life by using the land and a would-be burgeoning farm are futile.

Because of this, Jacob and Monica continue to be pulled further and further apart, setting the stage for tough decisions to be made.

‘Minari’ is funny, heartwarming, and moving all at the same time

One of the biggest achievements that the film pulls off is its ability to balance comedy and drama. At the heart of the film is how the relationship between David and Soonja begins to shift and transform the family’s experience in Arkansas while Jacob’s experience continues to make their situation more complicated.

While the first half of the film is more interested in unpacking the differences and relationship between those two characters, the latter half of the film literally sees the family crumble in search of this “dream,” before building them back up, together, and stronger.

Aside from the culture clash between David and Soonja, there is also the white conservative backdrop of Arkansas that provides for a lot of comic relief, especially in the character of the family’s neighbor, Paul (Will Patton), who somehow convinces Jacob to give him a job after he finds out he served in the Korean War and is familiar with Korean vegetables.

The film is anchored by its stellar performances

While the whole cast of Minari is great, after setting the indie scene ablaze in 2018 with Burning, it looks like Yeun could actually get all of the flowers he deserved a couple of years ago for this film and then some.

Yeun brings a particular amount of warmth to the role that immediately allows viewers to relate to Yeun’s desire to succeed, no matter the path that it takes to get there. Cho and Kim have surely delivered two of the best performances by young actors this year. And Kim’s scenes with Youn are the film’s most spectacular, and outside of their comedic fare through the first two acts, the final third of the film has a scene between the two that will absolutely gut you.

The film is sure to get several comparisons to The Farewell, due to its filmmaker, cast, and subject matter. The choice to have the film’s language be primarily in Korean will also garner comparisons to Oscar favorite, Parasite. However, Minari is an excellent, original work in its own right and should not be subjugated by Hollywood to just one category.

Minari premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 26, 2020. It will be released in theaters later this year via A24.