The story told by Lee Isaac Chung in Minari is as much an examination of the nuclear family unit as it is a snapshot of the immigrant experience in the US.
Minari is set in 1980s America, where Jacob and Monica are raising their kids. Jacob has moved the family out of the city so they can live close to the land he intends to convert into a farm for Korean crops.
We learn very early that Monica isn’t pleased with the move. Her unhappiness is only made worse when there is a downpour on their first night. The heavy rains are as much a sign for her as they a signal for the audience. There will be torrid times.
Monica isn’t displeased merely because she doesn’t like the rural setting of their new lives. She has some practical concerns, one of which stands out: their son David (a remarkably charming Alan S Kim) has a heart problem: how quick can they get to a hospital if he has a crisis?
To make her happy, Jacob allows Monica’s mother to come visit. Her entrance into the story gives the film some comedic moments and, much later, pathos. Her exchanges with David, who doesn’t seem to like her, are very charming and provide a break from the tension that develops between the couple. Although the film gives the women lives of their own, its real drama lies with the male characters: David has his adventures; Jacob struggles in this land that is not his.
As played by Steven Yeun, who embodies a tight-lipped heroism that hardly works for romance or community, Jacob is a character that demands sympathy. He would get it 100% if he were a single man, but as the husband of a wife and father of two children, his own need to be the hero of his life shifts sympathies to his wife on occasion.
In one devastating scene, Monica cries after Jacob receives good news. It should be tears of joy, but this is a film too smart, too real to run after such a cliche. When she gives the reason for her tears, it is immediately clear that she sees him clearly — maybe more clearly than he sees himself. What follows is barely important. Chung has said all that needs to be said about this immigrant family, its members and, especially, the man who heads it all.
The film won the big prize at Sundance and an audience award. When it reaches a cinema or streaming service near you, see it.