It’s been nearly nine months since Lee Isaac Chung’s “Minari” took Sundance Film Festival by storm, winning both the U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize and the U.S. Dramatic Audience Award – the festival’s two most prestigious honors.
As impressive as that was, January might as well be nine years ago. Not only has the entire film industry been shaken by the global pandemic, but other critically-acclaimed films have dominated headlines during the fall festival circuit. Despite all of this, A24’s deeply American story of a Korean family’s attempt to set down roots in rural Arkansas is sure to leave a lasting impression on viewers.
It’s difficult to pin down exactly who the “main” character is in “Minari.” The story opens inside the backseat of the Yi family sedan as it cruises through the countryside. We are immediately placed in the perspective of the youngest child, David, played by an adorable Alan Kim in his big-screen debut. The car pulls up to an empty field, with the exception of a speck of a trailer home. Beside the car pulls a moving truck, from which the Yi family patriarch, Jacob (Steven Yeun), hops out.
It doesn’t look like a particularly inviting house, but it’s now home. David and his older sister Anne (Noel Kate Cho) stand and stare for a moment before rushing up to the door with excitement and wonder. “The house has wheels!” is a happy sentiment that only a child might shout upon arrival here. As the children eagerly climb in through the front door, their mother, Monica (Han Ye-ri), is less amused, standing back while Jacob tries to coax her inside. The entirety of the film can be boiled down to these moments – childhood innocence on one side, anxious cynicism on the other.
Whether he is campaigned as a Lead Actor or Supporting makes no difference, Yeun gives one of the year’s best performances and should very well be in the mix for an Oscar nomination. “Minari” is a film that’s quiet and naturalistic, and Yeun fits right in. Since departing “The Walking Dead” in 2016, he’s molded his craft under the direction of Korean auteurs such as Lee Chang-dong and Bong Joon-ho, but this may be his most significant work yet. If his son David is a symbol of childhood innocence and optimism, Yeun is hardened and jaded by his years laboring on the West Coast, before finally saving enough money to bring his family to Arkansas.
While this film takes place in Arkansas, it could really be any rural community in the South, and the Yi’s could be any immigrant family trying to achieve their own version of the American Dream. Large parts of the film’s understated comedy is a result of the culture clash and awkward interactions that come out of them. One such scene comes with the introduction of Paul (Will Patton), an older, Evangelical Christian man who comes to sell Jacob a tractor that he can use to begin farming his land. Paul is wearing oversized glasses and tattered clothes, with grease on his hands. He’s a good man and means well, but his awkward prayer and fervent requests for work as a farmhand cause Jacob to clutch David a little closer as the boy stares up at the stranger.
While Jacob’s personal odyssey to start a farm and salvage his marriage provide the heavier drama of the film, more of the humor is derived in David’s journey. The little boy is still trying to settle in to his new surroundings when his maternal grandmother comes to live with them. David has never met his grandmother and expects a kind, quiet old woman who will bake cookies for him. Instead, Soon-ja – played with a delightful feistiness by Youn Yuh-Jung – spends her days watching professional wrestling on the television, cursing up a storm and hogging David’s favorite soda. Thankfully, their relationship isn’t just played for laughs, but it evolves in some beautiful and rather emotional ways throughout the film. Youn’s performance walks a tightrope between absurdity and sincerity, and she should not be forgotten come awards season.
Lee Isaac Chung drew heavily from his own personal experience growing up on a small farm in Arkansas, and “Minari” can certainly be classified as a semi-autobiographical story. Chung’s honest and tender memories are vividly realized on screen in a way that is reminiscent of the work of Terrence Malick. Handheld camera montages capture David running through fields and trees on his way to a nearby creek where he and his grandmother plant the film’s titular Korean crop, all while Emile Mosseri’s twinkling score plays. A location that would otherwise seem mundane is elevated through the adventurous eyes of a child.
This childlike perspective is one of the film’s most alluring aspects, even though it can make for pacing that slowly plays out these rather simple narratives. Scenes are devoted to things that bother us most as kids – like thunderstorms, fighting parents, or waking to realize we’ve wet the bed… again. Chung does his best to balance the story between David and his grandmother and Jacob’s farming struggles and marital woes. Although it sags a bit in the final hour, the conclusion takes a bold and emotional turn that works well.
Chung bears his childhood on screen and manages to deliver one of the quietest and softest films of the year, populated with characters that feel like people we know and love in our own lives.
“Minari” is not only another testament to the shared experiences of immigrant families in America, but to Americans in general, reminding what makes this country strong in the first place: the resilient, hardworking men and women who raise us, teach us and love us, no matter the circumstances.
Johnny Sobczak is an entertainment journalist and graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he majored in Media and Journalism and minored in Global Cinema. Johnny is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association and has been with Inside the Film Room since August 2019. He was named Senior Writer in January 2020 and co-hosts the Inside the Film Room podcast with Zach Goins. Johnny spends his days job-hunting, watching films and obsessing over every new detail of Denis Villeneuve's "Dune."