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Misbegotten Identity

Melissa Lukenbaugh/A24

Minari (2021)

When the trailer of “Minari” telegraphs the tragedy that will eventually befall a Korean immigrant family taking root in 1980s rural Arkansas, the specter of racism flashes across the mind. It just makes too much sense in that setting, even if it’s also decidedly trite. Fortunately, the dreaded bigotry in this semiautobiography of writer-director Lee Isaac Chung only rears its ugly head in the form of borderline microaggressive ignorance.

The story of one man’s stubborn pursuit of the American dream, exemplified by Jacob (Steven Yeun) growing Korean produce in the Ozarks with the naïve hope of supplying ethnic grocers in Texas, also emanates contrivance despite the fresh Asian-American angle. Thankfully, “Minari” isn’t entirely about that, either.

As Jacob has a go at farming, his wife, Monica (Han Yeri), supports the family gendering chicks at a hatchery. By necessity, Monica’s mother, Soonja (Youn Yuh-jung), arrives to babysit 7-year-old David (Alan Kim) and the slightly older Anne (Noel Cho). David promptly spurns grandma, whining about her Korean smell. But adults who know better immediately recognize there’s more to David’s contempt: It’s not just grandma, but the entire old world she represents.

What we haven’t seen a lot of is immigrants in America wrestling with the shame and embarrassment associated with their identities, and “Minari” presents this delightfully through a child with no filter. The self-loathing doesn’t manifest in agony or anguish here, but rather in an immature brat acting out. The film ultimately tells a story about immigrants’ quest for belonging, which they will find once they learn to embrace both cultures.


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