MINARI: The American Dream Sounds Like a Nightmare
Writer-director Lee Isaac Chung underscores the destructive nature of the American Dream through detailed characterization and plot events in Minari. The contrast of Jacob’s ambition with the grandmother’s nonconformity expose the faults in the premise of the American Dream. The American Dream in Minari is nothing but a dream— a mere fallacy to eclipse the anguish that plagues the Yi family and other immigrant communities.
Minari is not a profound tale on upward social mobility or an assessment of American national ethos, but rather, a story based in collective experience of strife. Minari is an emblem of universal struggle in this country, but exists far removed from the glory and triumph of the American Dream.
As played by Steven Yeun, Jacob Yi personifies the archetypal immigrant motivated by notions of the American Dream. As a staple of the American Dream, land becomes Jacob’s most valuable possession in his rural Arkansas town, as he even goes on to tell his wife, “this is the best dirt in America!” The farm, as a manifestation of Jacob’s American Dream, becomes the centerpiece of conflict in Minari.
The farm provides Jacob access to achieve prosperity, but also wields the power to disintegrate his family. Jacob’s dream of land and money doubles as his own personal nightmare.
As Jacob becomes more adamant to sell his traditional Korean produce to a vendor, his desire pulls him towards the profit of the farm over his own family. As the farm attracts more commercial profit, his wife Monica almost leaves with the children. Monica (Yeri Han) questions Jacob’s dependent consumerism as their marriage implodes: “What does it mean if we can’t save each other, but money can?”
The fire that destroys Jacob’s produce at the end of the film forces him to prioritize family over his materialistic goals. The fire is a catastrophic, yet convenient solution to the persistent threat Jacob and his American Dream pose to the family. The end of Minari brings no glorious success for Jacob and exhibits the harsh and transient reality of the American Dream. The concept of an American Dream in Minari feels an awful lot like an American Struggle.
As played by Yuh-jung Youn, Soon-ja becomes emblematic of cultural dissension and individualism in Minari. Soon-ja’s actions break standard conventions and David often asks for a “real grandma” instead of her. Soon-ja’s relationship with David (Alan Kim) positions him at a dichotomy between his own assimilation and his Korean heritage (he notes Soon-ja ‘smells like Korea’). Soon-ja encourages David to take pride in his Korean background, and soon after, he even teaches his white friend how to play the Korean card game taught to him by his grandmother.
Soon-ja plants minari seeds alongside the creek-- a native Korean plant known for its survival amidst unexpected and inhospitable conditions. The minari seeds foreshadow the Yi family’s growth and abundance in an unfamiliar ecosystem with a distinct Korean sensibility. To name the film after the minari seeds serves as an intentional reinforcement that this film does not aim to be an assertion of American values.
In the movie’s climax, Soon-ja accidentally sets Jacob’s barn of produce on fire.
In the moment, Soon-ja’s mistake feels critical, as if she has ruined the Yi family’s single opportunity at success. But, in an ironic twist of events, it becomes clear that her act of destruction unites the family and salvages the remains of Jacob’s marriage with Monica. As the antithesis of American values, Soon-ja demolishes Jacob’s American dream, but saves the family.
Chung’s cinematic techniques reflect the complex nature of the American Dream in Minari. A lot of scenes and moments in Minari have this dream-like quality to them, as if a deliberate allusion to the American Dream. Jacob’s slender frame is often swallowed whole by massive establishing shots that make the farm feel as if its Heaven on Earth. Chung employs these grand visuals as a narrative engine to manufacture a false, cheerful narrative about the American Dream.
The farm, because of Chung’s visual artistry, feels like a paradise but the reality is much darker. The farm exists as a beacon of destruction for several reasons. First, the farm endangers Jacob and Monica’s marriage. The farm’s distance from a hospital also puts David at peril, and the farm’s history is marred with the suicide of its previous owner. The reality of life on the farm unveils the toxic and downright fatal nature of the American Dream, but Chung conceals this truth and manipulates viewers with sophisticated and intentional film techniques.
The costumes in Minari, designed by Susanna Song, reflect the values of the characters and their attachment to American soil. The beginning of the film is characterized by hues of red, white, and blue. Jacob’s tractor and cap are both red, David wears a red polo and blue shorts, and the daughter Anne-Yi adorns red, white, and blue accesories at the same time at one point in the film. Soon-ja’s entrance in the film marks a distinct shift from red, white, and blue. Her unconventional personality is embodied in her fashion with bright yellows and greens, and draws sharp contrast between her and the other members of the Yi family.
At its conclusion, Minari feels like a subtle satirical analysis of the American Dream. As the fire devours the produce and Jacob’s hopes, the notion of an American Dream transforms into a nightmare. The pursuit for the American Dream endangers more than the Yi family; Paul, a minor character in the film, pursues his own American Dream at the cost of bitter and persistent alienation. If not a satirical analysis on the American Dream, Minari is a cautionary tale about success in this country. Black, White, or Asian… the struggle is always real.