It’s clear why Minari, an indie movie based on the childhood of writer/director Lee Isaac Chung, is nominated for Best Screenplay at the 2021 Academy Awards. Set in the 1980’s, Minari follows the Yi’s, a Korean-American family that moves from a city in California to rural Arkansas in pursuit of the ever elusive American dream. For 98 pages, we are given a window into the lives of a prospective farmer, Jacob; a city girl, Monica; their two young kids David, who has a serious heart murmur, and Anne who is mature beyond her years. In just the first few scenes, which take place over the course of four pages, Chung expertly sets up the subtle themes and driving forces behind the entire movie.
The movie starts with us learning about the family as the family learns about their new home in rural Arkansas. The way that each individual family member reacts to this new space tells us everything we need to know to understand their parts in the story. Jacob is so eager to start building his dream farm that, when he shows Monica how great the soil is, he completely ignores the needs she voices about living closer to a hospital and their work. This theme of him putting his dream of running a farm over the needs of his family is the tension that drives the entire plot. It isn’t until the movie’s final breaking point, when his wife almost dies trying to save their crops from a fire, that he finally chooses his family over his farm.
Monica’s shock when they first pull up to the house displays her feelings of betrayal that creates the story’s recurring conflict. The first thing she says when she sees their new house is ‘what is this place?’ It’s immediately clear that she played no part in picking this new home of theirs, or if she did, it was all a lie. When she goes as far as telling her kids not to hang any of the family pictures because they aren’t staying, it’s made clear that, for the rest of the movie, she will never give this place a real chance. Then, when she voices her concerns to Jacob and he ignores her, it beautifully sets up this home to be a representation of her husband’s selfishness. Her ever present struggle with this vice of his comes to fruition when she gives Jacob an ultimatum at the end of the second act and he chooses the farm over their marriage. It isn’t until the fire, when he finally shows how much he cares about her, that she is able to open herself up to living on the farm. At the same time, she also shows how much she cares about him by running in after him to help save the crops that she’s spent the entire movie fighting against. When he lets go of his selfishness that was defined in those first four pages of the screenplay and she opens her mind to the importance of the home, the film is able to come to a conclusion.
David expresses how cool he thinks everything in this new house is by saying ‘woah’ every time he sees something new, like the wheels on the house. This excitement juxtaposed with Monica’s hesitation shows a duality of cultures that is an important theme portrayed throughout the rest of the film. It’s clear that David is most comfortable when surrounded by American tropes, like having a grandmother who bakes cookies instead of one that makes healing teas. That characteristic is what creates friction when his grandmother comes to live with them, but that friction creates a dialogue that eventually allows them to bond until it dissolves into a wonderful relationship that helps heal his heart.
We learn about David’s heart condition within the first few pages of the screenplay, and it instills fear in the viewer. This spirited little boy has to hold back his want to run and jump and be a kid because his heart could stop if it works too hard. Suddenly, we’re just as uneasy as the family is moving to this new place. This is great storytelling that allows the audience to align themselves with the emotions of the characters right from the beginning.
Anne doesn’t speak much within the first few pages, or in the film in general, but what she does say tells us everything about who she is as a person. Even though she’s 10, her main focus tends to be on taking care of David. She mirrors her mom’s voice when she yells at David to stop running and asks for updates on his heart murmur. It isn’t until she teases her dad about his snoring that you are reminded she is still just a child. Chung expertly shows what it’s like to be a daughter in an unstable home, but he keeps it understated. He doesn’t have her blow up at everyone when she is overwhelmed, but he doesn’t have her be the perfect child either. She’s extremely helpful throughout the film, but she isn’t larger than life, and for a genre that loves over-the-top teenage emotions, that’s a pretty remarkable thing.
What seals the deal and ties this all together is the fact that the family talks mostly in Korean throughout the movie. By defining this in the first few scenes via including just the family members in them, this sets it up so that, when characters who don’t speak Korean eventually enter, the audience feels like they’re part of the Yi family. This is because, when the audience and the family are the only ones who understand what is being said in Korean during family discussions while a character who only speaks English waits for a reply, a stronger connection between the audience and the family is created. This can be seen in exchanges such as when Monica and David discuss in Korean if he can stay at a friends house while the English-speaking friend waits for an answer. The only ones in this scene who know what is being said are the family members and the viewing audience. That makes you identify with the family members in this scene and is why it’s fantastic that a movie set in rural Arkansas is mostly in Korean. And thus, after learning so much important information about the characters within the first four pages of the screenplay, the dialogue in Korean makes you feel an extra bond with them, which is the lifeblood of an understated indie movie like Minari.