What ‘Minari’ Means to Me
Lee Isaac Chung’s film took me through his past and into my own family’s story
I’ve had the feeling of following the film Minari around for a few months now since the first time I saw the trailer last year. I guessed Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari would be different to me from just about any other film I’d seen from how, even those two minutes, evoked my own memories in a way I wasn’t used to. I laughed with recognition while reading Jay Caspian Kang’s New York Times Magazine profile of Steven Yeun, one of the film’s stars, when he describes this feeling:
When the trailer for Minari appeared online this past fall, I texted the link to a Korean friend. She said she wasn’t sure she could watch the film because those two minutes seemed almost too accurate, too close to some memories she had left interred.
Yeun stars as Jacob, a young Korean American father, his character inspired by Chung’s father, who has left Los Angeles for Arkansas in the 1980s in a kind of second migration, hoping to start a farm raising Korean vegetables for the 30,000 Korean immigrants he knows are arriving a year, a number he has very confidently at his fingertips. He works as a chicken sexer, which involves separating female and male chicks from each other in an industrial chicken farm, and his wife, Monica, played by Yeri Han, does this too.
There are no doubt many reasons for this exodus from Korea. But the repressive regime of President Chun Doo-hwan, increasingly the subject of films, like A Taxi Driver or 1987, comes to mind in Minari when Jacob says to Monica, “Remember back in Korea, when we promised to move to America and save each other?” It was a time of economic prosperity, but it was also all too common for someone to fall victim to the social purification project Chun had put in place. The history in Minari is regularly evoked this way, more by implication than explicit reference. Only when Jacob and Monica bring her mother, Soonja, played by Youn Yuh-jung, to live with them, does Monica talk to her son David about her, describing her as all alone, no relatives, no spouse or other siblings “because of the war,” which is of course the Korean War. And just when you might expect some pitiful figure, Soonja arrives, full of a brusque, hearty laughter. She does not cook but…