Eric Bai
Eric Bai

Eric Bai

Minari — An exercise in empathy

Minari — An exercise in empathy

Eric Bai's photo
Eric Bai

Published on Feb 28, 2021

3 min read

Subscribe to my newsletter and never miss my upcoming articles

Minari, directed by Lee Isaac Chung, shares an adapted version of Chung’s childhood in the vast farmland of Arkansas. The story touches on how a first-generation immigrant child starts grasping their Korean-American identity. At the same time, the film shows how their parents struggle to make a living while integrating with an unfamiliar Western culture. These two journeys are both turbulent, and yet the story is overflowing with familial love. The final result is a gorgeously fleshed out microcosm of the American immigrant experience.

The film centers on parents Jacob (Steven Yeun) and Monica (Han Ye-ri), and their young children, David (Alan Kim) and Anne (Noel Kate Cho). The family moves to Arkansas on Jacob’s insistence that they can make a living for themselves by starting a farm. Monica is less than happy about this arrangement, preferring to be closer to the city. To pacify Monica’s discontent, her mother, Soonja (Youn Yuh-Jung), moves in with them.

Minari focuses on two main character arcs. First, seven-year-old David, who knows more about America than Korea, hates that he must share his bedroom with his grandmother, a stranger he has never met before. David initially clashes with his grandmother over unfamiliar food, unfamiliar smells, and the unmet Western expectations of what a grandmother should be. David’s antics to antagonize his grandmother show his frustrations about suddenly having to learn more about what being Korean means.

The second character arc is that of the patriarch Jacob. He stubbornly insists on doing everything his way — he scoffs at the Americans who offer their help with running his farm. Despite Monica’s constant grievances over how his choices affect the rest of the family, Jacob put his crops first. In one instance, he uses up all of the family’s running water. Jacob reasons that, once he succeeds in getting the farm running, his family will never have to worry about money again. The temporary burdens are worth it.

In one of the film’s most revealing scenes, Monica confronts Jacob about how risky his gamble on the farm is for their children’s future, and Jacob admits that ”[the children] need to see me succeed at something for once.” Suddenly, Jacob’s stubbornness falters from the noble façade he presented before — the farm is important for his own pride, and is not just about being a good father and husband.

Jacob and David’s character arcs are both about the struggle to outgrow their ego in order to live up to their responsibilities to their family. David begins to accept his Korean identity while Jacob begins to accept a more American way of life. The two arcs complement each other and culminate together beautifully.

These character arcs describe the more overarching ideas behind the story, but it’s the beautifully little moments within Minari that elevate it to be something special. One particular scene that stood out: When Soonju arrives, she brings Korean spices and anchovies that are hard to find in America. Monica is moved to tears as she smells and touches these precious tokens of a far away home. This exchange lasts just a moment, but it’s one of many instances where Chung demonstrates how small, personal details are the key ingredient for poignant storytelling. Every moment rang true.

Perhaps my favorite aspect of Minari is the fact that it is an exercise in empathy. Chung, now a father himself, created this film to look back on his childhood to try and understand what his parents were going through to give him a better life. In doing so, he asks the audience to expand their horizons through empathy as well.