Disclaimer: this analysis contains spoilers
In the films we view as agents of representation, I always scrutinize the depth of characterization. "I'm an interesting person," I'll think, "So the characters that look like me better exhibit all the nuance and complexity that constitute human individuality."
Such was my mindset going into Lee Isaac Chung's new film Minari (2020). With all the hype surrounding it, I took my first opportunity to purchase a virtual ticket and watch A24's most recent Sundance favorite. In a time when our stories are snowballing to greater mainstream acceptance, nothing warranted my attention more than an awards-contending film about Asian-America.
To my satisfaction, I found the plot to be simple, yet the story intricate. Chung's semi-autobiographical film compels in its nuanced family melodrama: across two cultures and three generations, a Korean-American family of five tries to make sense of their new Arkansas home. The result? An inspired writer, struck by the film's lush characterization, typing away at the first installment in a series of character studies on Minari's main cast.
Let us begin with Jacob.
For a man with a Biblical name, Jacob (played by Steven Yeun) is not a religious person. He radiates traditional masculinity, imbued with a secular ambition. He exhibits hardiness and scrappiness in his entrepreneurship, but a shadow accompanies his prideful independence—a lack of faith in fortune, in friendship, and even in family.
Like any decent film about a man's pursuit of the American Dream, Minari pits individual ambition against familial responsibility. The film sets up this conflict in the Yi family's first minutes in their new farmhouse. Both Monica (Yeri Han) and the children (Anne and David, played by Noel Cho and Alan Kim) are shocked by the conditions they have moved into. As Jacob beams over the color of the soil, it becomes clear he misguided their expectations. He does not appear to have consulted with Monica before betting their financial stability on this Korean vegetable venture.
Notably, the film proceeds from this moment by alternating between shots of expansive fields and indoor hallways. When Jacob tends to his farm, the beautiful golden-green vistas evoke the American mythos of boundless opportunity, and it is in these moments that Minari feels most hopeful.
Every slice of optimism, however, pairs with a sobering flash of claustrophobia. We see Monica and the children depicted mostly indoors, and careful camera placements bring attention to the crowded spaces and narrow hallways. It is both intimate and sad. Heartfelt interactions between mother and child, sister and brother, grandma and grandson, etc. fill these small spaces with warmth, but you can't help but feel they are a bit trapped. Most of all, we notice Jacob's absence as he toils outside, alone.
Jacob's comfort in the outdoors underscores a secondary tension of urban vs. rural sensibilities in his marriage with Monica. In characterizing them, I am reminded of a Journey song: Jacob is "just a small-town boy," and Monica is "just a city girl." Jacob raves about soil, while Monica can't seem to shake the thought that their lives would be better spent in a more urban or suburban California.
This isn't to knock on Jacob. Despite his probable rural roots, his work ethic made him stand out even in the city, and he developed a reputation as a speedy chicken sexer. In a more generalized sense, Jacob makes the most of the circumstances he gets, but he also works to change those circumstances for a better life. He is confident in and proud of his abilities, and he genuinely believes his vegetable farm can satisfy both his entrepreneurial ambition and patriarchal duty.
This confidence contributes to his secular attitudes. Although he attends church with his family, he only broaches the idea as a concession to Monica after one of their disagreements. In practice, he advocates "using your head" over trusting in higher powers. We watch a water diviner show off his trick, only for Jacob to turn down his service and dig his own well. As he surveys the geography to deduce the water's underground location, he seizes the moment to coach his son David. This interaction reinforces his conviction to the mantra of self-sufficiency, and it also reveals his traditional view on the separation of spheres: despite Anne being older and more able-bodied, we never see Jacob impart life-lessons to his daughter. Throughout the film, they barely interact at all.
Additional characterization comes when Jacob hires Paul (Will Patton), the eccentric white man with a very literal interpretation of bearing one's cross. When Jacob expresses skepticism that any white man could properly nurture Korean vegetables, Paul cites his involvement in the Korean War to appeal for the job. It's not certain why this detail convinces Jacob. Perhaps he sees Paul's military service as a badge of masculinity or endorsement of discipline. Or perhaps his rural sensibilities find superstitious value in Paul's physical exposure to the Korean soil. Either way, he hires him.
Despite all the back-breaking hours they share, however, Jacob sees Paul as an employee, not as a friend. After being invited to dinner at the Yi residence, Paul oversteps a boundary by implicitly revealing that he's noticed the tension in Jacob and Monica's marriage. Jacob becomes cold, curtly reminding Paul to arrive early tomorrow because they have a lot of work to do. It is telling that he then falsely accuses Monica of telling Paul about their struggles. His hasty accusation reveals a failure to recognize how apparent their problems have become, and we see in him a toxic possessiveness, common to many men, over his personal and familial matters. If only he were capable of handling them on his own.
I can never resist drawing an apt comparison to The Godfather, and Michael Corleone's famous words—"It's not personal...it's strictly business"—find resonance in not only his interactions with Paul but also in his ambition. Much like Michael, Jacob purports to strive for the sake of family; much like Michael, he forgoes family for personal ambition when he's forced to choose between them. When his business prospects look bleakest, Jacob gives Monica his blessing to take the kids and move to California. He means well in giving Monica an escape, but he fails the implicit test of loyalties—he'd rather watch his vegetables rot than leave with his family.
But the final test is yet to come. Through a series of emotional twists and turns, Jacob first experiences elation when an Oklahoma City grocer agrees to buy his vegetables. Monica dampens his mood when she points out how he betrayed his spousal and parental responsibilities in choosing farm over family. As they drive home, on the verge of separation, the film unveils a final tribulation, just beyond the ominous smell of smoke that reaches them too late.
The barn has been set ablaze, and Jacob's precious vegetables are going up in flames. At first, Jacob and Monica both brave ash and smoke to salvage as many crates as they can, but when Monica collapses, Jacob finally wakes up to the fact that Monica is much more important to him than the success of his enterprise. He helps her out of the flames, leaving the vegetables to burn, and one facet of his developmental arc is complete.
The fire resets Jacob's mentality in another way: it shows him the power of fortune, both good and bad. When the film cuts to the next scene, Jacob and Monica watch the water diviner pick a location for a new well. Jacob has accepted that there are forces beyond his control, and he may as well take advantage of the water diviner's seemingly supernatural gifts. As they mark the spot with a stone, the film implies he will try again; this time, however, he and Monica will do it together.
And they'll have one more crop to harvest. In the film's final moments, Jacob and David walk to the creek to observe the minari. Upon seeing how well it has grown, Jacob notes that Soon-Ja (Yuh-jung Youn) picked an excellent spot to plant its seeds. He has learned to appreciate what others have to offer, and he has recognized his silver lining: while he may not have always been there for his family, his family has been there for him all along.