Vivid, honest and tender, this resonant and moving drama stars Steven Yeun as a Korean American father and farmer chasing a better life for his family.
February 18, 2021
Films about the American dream aren't simply about chasing success. The circumstances and details change, but they're often movies about finding a place to call home as well. Such a quest isn't always as literal as it sounds, of course. While houses can signify achievement, feeling like you truly belong somewhere — and that you're comfortable enough to set your sights on lofty goals and ambitions that require considerable risks and sacrifices — transcends even the flashiest or cosiest combination of bricks and mortar. Partly drawn from writer/director Lee Isaac Chung's own childhood, Minari understands this. It knows that seeking a space to make one's own is crucial, and that it motivates many big moves to and within the US. So, following a Korean American couple who relocate to rural Arkansas in the 80s with hopes of securing a brighter future for their children, this delicately observed and deeply felt feature doesn't separate the Yi family's attempts to set up a farm from their efforts to feel like they're exactly where they should be.
When Jacob Yi (Steven Yeun, Burning) introduces his wife Monica (Yeri Han, My Unfamiliar Family), pre-teen daughter Anne (first-timer Noel Cho) and seven-year-old son David (fellow newcomer Alan S Kim) to their new 50-acre plot, he's beaming with pride. He's bought them "the best dirt in America," he says. It might only span a trailer, a field and a creek, but he's certain that it will revolutionise their lives. Although both Jacob and Monica still spend their days in a chicken sexing factory to pay the bills, Jacob is confident his agrarian dream will reap rewards. The path he's chosen isn't a glossy fantasy, though. From trying to work out where best to build a well to provide water for his crops, to endeavouring to convince stores to buy his wares, Jacob weathers more than his fare share of struggles. Monica's worries about their isolation, and about money, also weigh heavily, as do Anne and David's attempts to fit in, the latter's heart murmur and the change that sweeps through the family when Monica's mother Soonja (Youn Yuh-jung, Sense8) joins them.
"Grandma smells like Korea," the curious and precocious David complains about his newly arrived grandparent — and it's a telling line of dialogue. When Jacob and Monica talk about their promises when they first got married, remembering how they said they'd "move to America and save each other", their words are just as revealing. Minari doesn't spin a broad culture-clash narrative, but it does intricately and intimately explore what it means to be pulled in two directions. It's well aware that leaving one's homeland isn't the same as surrendering one's heritage, and that anyone who hasn't been through the same experience can't always spot the difference. Born in US, David and his sister don't have the same connection to Korea as their parents; however, they're reminded of how they stand out in American's heartland on a daily basis. Jacob and Monica have different visions of what their life should entail, and how to maintain ties to the past — he wants to grow Asian vegetables to sell to markets who cater to other immigrants, while she wants to live in a larger city as part of the Korean diaspora — but they're constantly navigating the same push and pull.
Fellow recent American-made releases Crazy Rich Asians and The Farewell also traversed comparable thematic territory, but through US-based Chinese American women who made eye-opening trips abroad — to meet their partner's relatives or visit their ailing grandmother. By contrast, Minari devotes every second to the Yi family's American lives. Rather than being driven by a homecoming, the film focuses on turning that soil that Jacob gushes over into the Yis' home. The power that radiates from Chung's choice here can't be underestimated. Nor can his decision to frame much of the movie from David's perspective, and to eschew overt conflicts for everyday dramas. Through a pitch-perfect blend of all three, Minari sees Arkansas as both a challenge and a playground. Starting anew here isn't easy, even with everything from overgrown grass to dutiful church visits taking on a larger-than-life feel from David's wide-eyed viewpoint, but Minari, Jacob and his loved ones are all committed to taking the bad with the good. In the Yis' case, setbacks come their way, adjustments are necessary and tense moments abound, but their dedication to calling their farm home manages to survive tough reality checks.
The film's overall story can be summarised neatly — a Korean American family moves to middle America — but Minari's charms and triumphs aren't ever simplistic. As movies influenced by personal real-life tales can be at their best, this is a gorgeously and thoughtfully detailed picture, with Chung realising that trading in specific minutiae is far more resonant, compelling and relatable than opting for sweeping generalisations. Lensed by cinematographer Lachlan Milne (Hunt for the Wilderpeople), the feature's visuals operate in the same fashion, offering exacting slices of life that also shimmer with a shared, nostalgic mood. Indeed, this precise and vivid film is told with such honest and tender emotion that it was always bound to feel equally unique and universal.
Minari isn't Chung's first feature, thanks to 2007's Munyurangabo, 2010's Lucky Life and 2012's Abigail Harm, but it's the kind of heartfelt yet meticulous movie that instantly cements him as a filmmaker to watch. Young Kim does take his debut leap into cinemas, and makes just as strong an impact, stealing every scene he's in. Considering that the child actor stars opposite the always-magnetic Yeun, who turns in his latest excellent performance and may well receive an Oscar nomination for his efforts, that's no minor feat. Han, Youn and Cho are just as stellar, though, as is Will Patton (Halloween) as a devout but kindly Korean War veteran who virtually becomes another member of the family. The way that Minari's cast comes together so exceptionally couldn't be more apt, actually. They each find the space to explore hard-earned dreams, and feel like they're taking viewers home with the Yis in the process.