In Lee Isaac Chung’s ‘Minari’ (2020), as in Lee Chang-dong’s ‘Burning’ (2018), actor Steven Yeun plays the role of a deeply struggling and intense character, which can be quite an interesting viewing experience for those who are used to seeing him hang out with Conan O’Brien in bite-sized online videos.
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Set in rural Arkansas, ‘Minari’ explores the time that the Yi family spends on their newly-bought land, after having moved from California. The couple, Jacob (Steven Yeun), and Monica (Han Ye-ri), are trying to navigate their lives in this new environment, to which Jacob convinces the family to move in order to chase the ‘American Dream’; he wants to build a farm on the plot of land that he has bought, and show his kids that he can succeed in life.
Throughout the film, the director uses the character of Jacob to explore notions of masculinity, marriage and family dynamics, taking us on a journey through the couple’s fights and choices. Both Jacob, an intense yet quiet soul, and his wife Monica, a woman who tries to keep her head down and create a life for her children in the middle of nowhere, try as hard as they can to rely on each other, however their dreams and life plans get in the way of their marriage as they imagine different lives for themselves and their family within the circumstances that they are in.
Alan S. Kim, arguably the star of the movie, plays the younger brother David who suffers from heart murmurs, which is why Monica and his older sister Anne are so eagerly overly-protective of him. It’s as if he is the distraction that is offered to the matriarchal characters to keep them sane amidst the chaos of moving and creating a new life for themselves. Audiences may already be familiar with Alan S. Kim, the young actor who warmed our hearts when he cried tears of joy after winning the Critics Choice Award for Best Young Actor this year. The newcomer plays the role with an indifferent passion, as he portrays a childishly wise and appropriately angsty character.
In an interview with the magazine ‘Little White Lies’, director Lee Isaac Chung explains that he used his dad’s life for inspiration, though he took artistic liberties with the casting, as he explains that Yeun himself is nothing like his dad. He further explains in the interview that his dad wanted to leave Korea as he did not fit into the collectivist lifestyle that is practiced within the country, and strived to embrace individualism and make something of himself.
‘Minari’ explores the theme of the ‘immigrant experience’ as well as that of the ‘American Dream’ subtly yet significantly, as Yeun’s character struggles with the isolation brought about by his status as an immigrant, husband and patriarch, and his desire to do more than just make ends meet. Jacob wants to be somebody, stand out amongst the crowd and show his kids that he has made it: and that they can too. Yeun portrays the character so well that the tension he experiences between these individualistic and collectivist ideologies is palpable, and Chung himself expressed that he wanted to examine this theme of the two cultures butting heads deeply in his film.
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We also see the experiences of second-generation immigrants depicted, as David despises his grandmother Soonja who comes to live with them but does not speak English. He believes that she is the reason why his parents fight so much, and wants her gone. He even mentions that “she smells like Korea”, even though he has never been there. It takes a while for him to get used to her, yet by the end, audiences may still greatly sense the emptiness in their relationship created by the generational and cultural gaps between the two characters.
‘Minari’ is a great watch, and is worth all the hype. The beautiful portrayal of both Korean and American culture that is ingrained subtly within the movie, without a single explicit hint of any specific cultural items or practices, offers a calming and personal look into the tension created by the desire to perform the traditional notions of both Western and Eastern masculinity whilst adhering to the responsibilities of a patriarch.
Needless to say, after this heavy and heartfelt drama, I had to watch that video where Steven Yeun and Conan go to the North Korean border to have a laugh, but I will be thinking about the performance of gender roles displayed in ‘Minari’ for a long, long time.
Edited by Saffron Brown Davis, Film Editor