by Ken Bakely
At its best, Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari is a delicately balanced patchwork, piecing together moments to create a profound and elegant examination of its characters and themes. Set in the 1980s, it follows the Korean-American Yi family, who move from California to Arkansas as Jacob (Steven Yeun) pursues his dream to start a farm that specializes in growing Korean vegetables for the growing diaspora in the country. With his wife, Monica (Han Ye-ri), and young children – son David (Alan Kim) and daughter Anne (Noel Kate Cho) – the Yis adjust to life in this scattered, rural community, compounded by the challenges of living as immigrants in the United States. It’s also within this context that Monica’s mother, Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung) moves in with them, a change that sheds further light on their internal and external challenges, from the stresses placed on Jacob and Monica’s marriage as Jacob’s struggles to get the farm off the ground, to David’s dismay that Soon-ja does not meet the traditional American conception of who a grandmother is. Working from autobiographical roots, Chung traces all of these threads out through a deliberate but wide-ranging style, with scenes scattered all throughout the Yis’ first months in Arkansas. Through this, he’s crafted a gorgeously vibrant series of reflections, moving toward a beautifully told tale that’s rich in small observations and bigger arcs alike, as he steers his characters through the hardships and hopes they experience.
The film is further anchored by a gifted cast of actors in the lead roles, who each deliver wonderful performances of deep emotional breadth and individuality. Every member of the family addresses their situation in their own way, and Minari, with little outright exposition, is able to demonstrate their sources of conflict, differences, and shared aspirations in the tiniest moments. It’s almost a shock when Chung begins riling up the plot in the third act, introducing larger and more conventionally structured developments – he has certainly demonstrated that he can comprehensively tell this story in graceful sotto voce. Indeed, it is when he assembles these varied components, searching through anecdotes, hooks, and emotions, that the movie seems almost to float, suspended in time and space. There is a purpose to every interaction and every supporting character. (For instance, when Will Patton is introduced as Paul, a man who Jacob hires as a farmhand, and who has a tendency to break out into loud prayer in regular intervals, what could have been a throwaway role becomes a fascinating, indelible individual – a testament to Chung’s observational command and Patton’s skill in bringing the character to life.) Minari effortlessly resists a temptation to assign some grandiose meaning or conclusion to everything that happens, and it’s all the more compelling because of it.
Chung emphasizes his characters’ uncertain feelings of placement and belonging. The Yi family lives under the oppressive knowledge of what American life is “supposed” to be like, and much of Minari examines the contradictions and impossibilities of how the American dream is commonly envisioned, while experiencing a culture through the perspective of a transplant into it. It’s unsparingly honest and naturalistic: the movie lets its characters live – existing in a world that feels so undeniably, genuinely lived-in. Chung recognises the rhythms and patterns of how we live and remember, and excels at translating them to the screen in engaging and readily accessible ways. Almost immediately, there’s a particular feeling that you’re sinking into the film’s world – a depth that can only come from an exquisite attention detail on the part of Chung, his cast, and his crew. Minari is a tale often told through quiet and introspective tones, but each is filled with so much dedication and rigor. The movie is resplendently confident in its abilities but intuitive and humble in its delivery. It expressively builds throughout to become a vulnerable, evocative, and moving saga of family and American life. This is a remarkably realized story that practically glows with thoughtfulness and care.