How “Minari” Depicts the Struggles of an Asian American Family
By Noah Dauncey
2020 was a weird year for the film industry. It brought new obstacles for film production crews attempting to make movies while abiding to the strict COVID-19 protocols (there is a hilariously vulgar audio clip of Tom Cruise enforcing these rules on the set of his next movie).
It was also a weird time for distribution. Theaters spent months shut down and studios didn’t know what to do with all the finished films they had planned to release. Many took to streaming services, with movies such as “Soul” (2020) and “Wonder Woman 1984” (2020) being released on Disney+ and HBO Max respectively (there was a small theatrical run for the latter in areas where theaters had reopened at the time).
However, the smaller, less anticipated films were stuck in limbo, and their futures were unclear. Such was the case for “Minari,” a 2020 film by Korean filmmaker Isaac Lee Chung. It wasn’t until late February, with the help of the A24 production and film distribution company, that “Minari” was finally able to find its way into homes across the globe via streaming.
“Minari” follows the story of a Korean family from California moving to Arkansas to pursue their dream of being farmers, wanting more than what their California life could offer. The family consists of Jacob, played by Steven Yeun (“The Walking Dead,” “Okja”), Monica, their two kids David and Anne, and their grandmother Soonja. Jacob tries to be a good provider for his family, yet it is uncertain if he has done the right thing by uprooting (farmer pun haha) them and relocating to a new environment.
While this alone would be a daunting ordeal, there is added pressure with David’s heart condition and the tension of the kids’ reaction to their grandma coming to live with them. With a seemingly nonstop series of unideal circumstances, Jacob and his family must persevere through these hardships in hopes of making it in America.
What I find interesting about this film is how it strays away from the typical “low-hanging fruit” storyline of racism. A story about an Asian American family moving to the south seems like an easy set-up for acts of racism and hate, and though there may be moments that allude to these themes, for the most part the family is accepted in their new community.
The film looks at how hard Jacob wants this new life to work out, and how devastatingly difficult it is to accomplish this goal. It feels like for every step they take forward, they take three steps back. Jacob doesn’t want to be rich; he just wants to provide for his family and prove to himself that he made the right choice in coming to Arkansas. Everything he does is solely with the intent to help the farm, but that raises a question: is he doing this for his family or is he doing this for himself?
Finally, on top of the powerful subject matter of the film, this is one of the most touching movies of last year. It comes from a very personal part of Lee Isaac Chung’s life. Chung dropped out of studying biology at Yale University to pursue filmmaking and, having made only a few smaller films prior to “Minari,” he was considering moving on from filmmaking.
With this mindset, he decided he had “one last shot at making another film” and decided to make it a semi-autobiographical story, his swan song farewell to filmmaking. Occasionally, the world rewards those who pour their hearts out into their work and now “Minari” has six Oscar nominations including Best Picture and Screenwriter.
Steven Yeun has also been nominated for Best Actor at the 2021 Academy Awards. Lee Isaac Chung’s look at a family trying to get by in America is a classic tale, one related to by many people. It is a showcase of the biggest difficulties to the smallest challenges, and a family who decides to stick together and work towards their goal together. I don’t know of anything more American than that.