Reviewed by Chris Narine
“Never pay for anything you can find for free.”
Lee Isaac Chung’s fourth feature-length narrative is one that opts for an especially tender look at traditional family dynamics. Where other films focusing dead-center on a story of cultural shock might tend to coast on the often harsh realities of its central characters, Minari is full of warmth, heart, and empathy. From the opening moments of vulnerability, as a Korean-American family makes their way to a rural Arkansas farmhouse, we’re thrust headfirst into a narrative that feels, if nothing else, personal. We bear witness to perhaps the most moving, spiritual depiction of an immigrant family yearning for their own American Dream since Jim Sheridan’s In America.
While the film’s poster would perhaps make you infer that it’s a coming of age tale, Minari wisely operates as an ensemble piece, providing depth and humanity to just about every single central character. It follows the Yi family, led by parents Jacob (Steven Yeun) and Monica (Han Ye-ri) and their children David (Alan Kim), and Anne (Noel Kate Cho). After departing California after failing to make ends meet, they decide to make a fresh start in Arkansas, where Jacob hopes to find some success for his abilities to farm. He enlists the help of eccentric loner Paul (Will Patton) to help aid him in his farming endeavor, shortly before Monica’s erratic, but ultimately sweet mother Soonja (Young Yuh-jung) comes to live with them. While each character has their intricacies and nuances that are slowly revealed throughout the narrative, there’s never a moment that rings false from an emotional standpoint.
This is courtesy not only of a beautifully written screenplay but of the performances from the ensemble that truly bring these characters to life. As Jacob, Yeun effectively displays the generational angst and implosive nature of a determined, hard-working father in a way that feels perfectly understated. And while Yeun has rightfully garnered critical acclaim for his turn here that could very well garner him a Best Actor nomination at the Oscars, it’s the work from the other key players that runaway with the picture. As Monica, Han Ye-ri is heartbreaking; she always finds ways to make the most of such simple facial expressions. It’s a stunning performance that quietly chews scenery whenever she’s on-screen. Much screen time is given to David, as his arc is perhaps the most substantial to the plot. Alan Kim delivers one of the most committed child performances of the last several years, bringing such a tender heart and likability to David that truly sticks with you. Another standout is Will Patton, who makes the most of his limited screen time with a genuinely hysterical yet subtly impactful turn, but really, it’s Youn Yuh-jung that devours the screen here. At first, while Soonja may seem to serve as the film’s primary source of comedic energy, she finds ways to subvert expectations and turns in truly powerful, gut-wrenching work. Her scenes with David rank among the best in the film, as they provide an unorthodox yet always tender grandparent/grandchild dynamic.Emile Mosseri’s score is pitch-perfect for the tone, finding ways to evoke the notion of the cultural shift in a way that’s somber and moving all at once. Momentous crescendos are placed with sequences of the Yi family in their simplest hour; running outside of their farmhouse, enjoying life as they live under the sun, and yet the score never fails to rouse even when it’s used minimally. The same praise can be made for Lachlan Milne’s fluid, exquisitely done cinematography, which beautifully illuminates the film’s farm setting, making each sequence glow in such a passionate way.
As the story progresses, tensions stir between character arcs and subplots, providing a sense of unease as we’re constantly questioning the outcome that the Yi family will have. Wisely, it never lets the oppression of characters serve as the film’s central theme, which in return acts as yet another example of the movie’s own catharsis. Why overtly emphasize the suffering of characters who’s own oppression has been established through context when we can opt to witness the joy and whole spectrum of emotions that come with it? Chung makes it clear how much empathy he has for this family. No matter how much poverty they endure, the love Chung brings to the table establishes a profound bond with the Yi family, signifying that any struggle that way comes their way will endure together, no matter the cost.
With Minari, the message is simple; the seeds that plant your family’s growth are only as good as the effort placed forth on them. When anger emerges, the roots that had been planted break with them, but there’s always a chance to start over, to start fresh. Perhaps the themes of a familial, cultural shift aren’t exactly original, but catharsis feels essential during this current climate. For some of us, the idea of the family seems lost, if not perplexing. As someone who comes from a broken family with no traditional parental figures, it’s tough to navigate adulthood knowing what beliefs we should bestow upon our future generations. But that’s where films like Minari feel so pivotal, as they can inspire someone to strive for, if nothing else, love.