Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari is a beautifully balanced, crowd-pleasing gem that’s an absolute pleasure. Starring Steven Yeun (Sorry to Bother You), it’s a semi-autobiographical tale drawn from the director’s own childhood growing up as a South Korean immigrant in rural Arkansas in the 1980s.
This is a very American film, something that was lost on the Golden Globes when they decided it was ineligible for Best Motion Picture because more than half of its dialogue is in Korean – a similar fate befell Lulu Wang’s The Farewell the previous year. It takes family and the American Dream as its central themes yet never feels overly sentimental, patriotic or nostalgic. Of course they face challenges and setbacks, but these are due to misfortune, never malice, and to the cultural difficulties of being in an alien land.
Jacob and Monica Yi (Yuen and Han Ye-ri) play a couple with two young children, all recently immigrated to the US. Fed up with menial factory labour, Jacob dreams of having his own farm, his own business and his own piece of land. This isn’t a film with a dramatic narrative arc; instead it takes its engaging drama from the daily minutiae of family, as they quietly strive to build a life for themselves.
Although Jacob is fully invested in creating that new life, Monica is less committed. The decision to move was clearly made jointly, but perhaps Monica agreed because of her love for her husband and to support his dream rather than being invested in that dream herself. This causes some underlying friction between the couple. Monica’s body language is almost comic in the opening scene when she can’t disguise her disappointment with their new home, a converted trailer complete with wheels and leaky roof. Nevertheless, despite Monica missing Korea she decides to make the best of it. America will be their new home.
The family dynamic is altered by the arrival of Monica’s mother Soon-ja from Korea. Played entertainingly by Youn Yuh-jung, she’s eccentric, kindly and strong willed and embodies the traditions the couple have left behind. Monica busts into tears when her mother unpacks some Korean chilli powder as a gift. Soon-ja forms a special bond with her grandchildren, particularly her grandson David (Alan Kim) who is captivated by her stubborn anarchic mischief.
This is truly an ensemble piece and much of the joy is in the interactions between the family members and in their support for one another. The script gives everyone equal billing and the acting is uniformly excellent. These are characters you believe in, there’s enough of a backstory and sensitive complexity for them all to feel real. Their characters are drawn out in the details – the grandmother’s love of watching American wrestling, a child’s matter-of-fact embarrassment of regular bedwetting.
Yuen, who was excellent in Lee Chang-dong’s magnificent Burning, is similarly superb as Jacob. It’s Jacob’s dream to create a farm, yet his pride and optimism are wounded by his mistakes and misfortunes. He plays a complex character, a loving father, determined to build his dream, yet wracked with frustrations which he confronts with a mixture of stoicism and sulking.
Minari is a fable about the American dream, but from an immigrant’s perspective. The film embodies America’s defining spirit, but it’s also about how the family bring their culture with them. America is depicted as a hospitable country, the kids make friends easily in school, the family is welcomed into the local church. This helps ease their cultural transition, yet its not without its challenges as well as its opportunities.
Besides exploring cultural transitions, the film explores themes of faith and change. Faith in their decision to build a new life and also religion. Monica yearns to go to church, missing the conventions of home; Jacob is less interested. He employs an elderly farm hand Paul (Will Patton, Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff) who has his own unconventional yet deeply held religious convictions, more maverick and independent.
Water is used as a visual motif. A subplot about finding a buried water source to irrigate their land involves the mysticism of water divining, which Jacob dismisses as hokum, but his reluctance to accept help leads to difficulties. And we often return to a nearby shaded stream where Soon-yi takes young David to secretly plant minari, an east-Asian water celery that grows steadfast in the gently moving river flow, a metaphor for how the family hold onto their cultural identity in changing times.
The score by Emile Mosseri is simply orchestrated and sets the film’s tone. It has a slightly wearing beauty that threatens to drown the film’s subtle delights, but is nevertheless a lot more delicate than his work on The Last Black Man in San Francisco and the quirkily self-regarding Kajillionaire.
Beautifully shot and lit, the interiors are golden, the woodland and rivers feel pleasantly cool. This gives the film a comfortable warmth that yet never feels overly nostalgic.
Minari is a sweet film, rather than sentimental, and has something in common with Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow in the way it depicts a rural pioneering existence. A story and a fable rather than a nostalgia trip, this is drawn from the childhood memories of the director, as much as it is inspired by Willa Cather’s novel ‘My Ántonia’ (look for a subtle nod on the delivery truck in the opening scene).
Although perhaps a little overlong, and with an ending that I found slightly unconvincing, this is an optimistic and positive film that never feels heavy handed in its themes. It celebrates family and the strength of cultural diversity and offers a fresh, immigrant perspective to the American dream. I really enjoyed it.
After a long wait, Minari is released in the UK for streaming on 2nd April 2021.Follow @davefilmblog