MINARI (2020) follows a Korean American family as they move to an Arkansas farm in search of their own American dream. Amidst the challenges of this new life in the strange and rugged Ozarks, they discover the undeniable resilience of family and what really makes a home. A semi-autobiographical take on writer and director, Lee Isaac Chung’s upbringing.
Everything about MINARI from the very second it opens screams family, the score flows with a wave of sentimentality, nostalgia and a sprinkling of hope, as they arrive at their new home with wheels and the story begins. It’s the epitome of the American dream, making a home and building something for yourself but fear not, this is not about to dive headfirst into a saccharine tale of the perfect family. One of the great aspects of Chung’s writing is the tension that he feeds into the story, each character has their own flaws and struggles, each day brings a new challenge for them that creates a relatable, moving and sweet story. The choice not to put racism in the forefront was an extremely clever choice. Chung brings that vein through subtly. It’s still there lingering in the background, ingrained in different elements but it doesn’t pull focus. It’s the family and their story that matters here, not other people’s perception of them despite its inescapability.
The true key to this film is authenticity, it’s built around a sincere story that’s brought forth convincingly with warmth and honesty. Chung’s directorial style captures all of that perfectly. MINARI is loving and affectionate, the palette works through a gentleness and embraces you with its wholesome, humble nature. There’s a quality to it that’s reminiscent of Terrence Malick’s work with Emmanuel Lubezki in the way that it has such a rich aesthetic, but with a much more widely relatable and modest atmosphere. The way that it’s shot does reflect that 1980s setting but what’s more impressive is that if you ignore the lack of technology, it feels timeless with such a relatable and genuine quality.
MINARI isn’t an easy-going film, it has its ups and downs, it’s equally happy and heart-breaking at times but it’s so easy to watch because the actors bring the Yi family to life beautifully. Steven Yeun effortlessly fits into this role of the traditional, slightly strict and relentlessly determined father, he hits the restrained moments just as effectively as when Jacob finally lets his emotion out, it’s a brilliant performance from start to finish. It’s the same with the entire cast, Han Ye-ri is fantastic as Monica, it’s a much more emotional performance and she brings through that intense frustration so well, and the fact that the two have quite a strained relationship but Ye-ri and Yeun still manage to keep that spark of chemistry is impressive.
Alan S. Kim is an absolute joy to watch, he brings such an individual personality to David, he has some of his father’s determination and his mother’s caution, but under that he’s just a kid who wants to play, run and to have a grandma that bakes cookies. The relationship that he builds with Youn Yuh-jung as his grandmother is something special and her performance is superb, it bucks the norm for this type of role and brings an extra edge. Noel Cho as Anne is the ultimate big sister, she moves back and forth between liking and disliking her brother, she keeps the level head of someone much older than her and she rounds out the family perfectly.
MINARI is a beautifully humble and moving portrait of a family trying to get their slice of the American dream. It’s a perfect cast, they’re an exceptional ensemble and watching them all together is enchanting. Lee Isaac Chung may be a name you didn’t know before but after watching Minari it will be one you won’t forget, he’s created a simply wonderful story and captured a stunning, warm and enrapturing visual. This is a film that you’re going to want to watch more than once.