Minari: a recollection of Korean roots in rural America

A tender and sweeping story about what roots us.

A24 released its new drama film, Minari, directed by Lee Isaac Chung, in theaters on Feb. 12. Set in the American South during the 1980s, the film tells the story of an immigrant Korean American family and their experiences on their newly-bought farm in rural Arkansas as they pursue the American Dream.

Featuring touching performances by Steven Yeun, Yeri Han, Alan Kim and Noel Kate Cho, Minari serves as a warm tale of growth and rebirth that perfectly encapsulates the director’s experiences and hardships as the youngest child in a family struggling to find stability.

Roughly translating to “water dropwort,” the film’s title stems from the name of a vegetable with a grassy aftertaste cultivated in East Asia that is commonly used in Korean dishes. In an interview at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, Chung stated that the native plant serves as a metaphor for growth and rebirth. “The interesting thing about it is that it’s a plant that will grow very strongly in its second season after it’s died and come back,” Chung explained.

He also stated that the Minari used in some of the scenes came directly from his father’s farm in Kansas, adding another layer of depth to the familial aspect of the film. Through its symbolic connotations, the plant perfectly captures the overarching themes of agriculture, heritage, family, growth and rebirth that the film hones in on.

While creating the semi-autobiographical film, Chung based the plot and characters on his own upbringing as a Korean American immigrant living in the Ozarks. From his crude grandmother who burned the barn down to the pilgrim-like neighbor who carried a cross around, a lot of the events and characters that are seen in the film are inspired by the director’s own memories of growing up in Arkansas, featuring subtle moments like throwing rocks at watersnakes near the minari creek.

Ultimately, what won the audience over was the film’s heartwarming story that makes them feel a deep-rooted connection with the characters. With its story that emphasizes the growth and connection between the three generations in the Yi family throughout their trials and tribulations, Minari touches the hearts of viewers and gives them a gratifying conclusion that shows hope for the family, signified by the harvesting of the titular plant that represents a new beginning for them.

Recently, there has been a controversy about how the film was nominated for and won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film despite being an American production by an American director. In response to this, Lulu Wang, the director of The Farewell from the same company, pointed out the preposterousness behind the situation.

Wang tweeted, “I have not seen a more American film than #Minari this year. It’s a story about an immigrant family, IN America, pursuing the American dream. We really need to change these antiquated rules that characterize Americans as only English-speaking.”

This raises an important question about what exactly constitutes a “foreign” film. After all, how can a film like Minari be considered as a Korean film while other films such as Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds from 2009 are still considered as American films despite its French setting and the characters predominantly speaking French and German among other languages?

Despite its seemingly mundane premise that revolves around the experiences of an immigrant family as they learn to grow closer to their roots, both literally and metaphorically, Minari touches audiences across the world through the heart and passion that went into it. In a film that can only be described as “tender,” it successfully establishes a connection between the viewer and the Yi family as they learn to be resilient and strengthen their family bonds through the troubles they face at the same time.

With its endearing view of a family’s pursuit of the American Dream, Minari is sure to sow a seed of solace deep in the audience’s hearts.

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