Steven Yeun, Alan S. Kim, Youn Yuh-jung, Yeri Han, and Noel Cho in Minari (2020)
Written and directed by Lee Isaac Chung, Minari is a beautifully told story about a Korean-American family of immigrants on the move in search of a fresh start in the 1980s. For Jacob (Steven Yeun), a fresh start means turning his dream of 50 acres into a reality. “Daddy’s going to make a garden,” he promises his seven-year-old son David (Alan S. Kim). In pursuit of the American dream, he moves their family from California to a house on wheels in rural Arkansas. Monica (Yeri Han), mom to David and his sister Anne (Noel Cho), has doubts living in the middle of nowhere. “Now we have a lot of land…isn’t that good? Tell mommy you like it,” Jacob urges to their son, hoping to win her over. But she’ll need a little more than complimentary words to smoothen the move. When the children’s grandma Soonja (Youn Yuh-jung) arrives from Korea to lend support, David’s curiosity is awakened by her personality, and the two slowly bond through stealthy playfulness. In the bigger picture of this film, Jacob’s garden dream becomes an active goal of starting a farm, for which his unwavering dedication puts the family’s future prospects on shaky ground.
For his fourth feature film to date, Chung shaped the narrative around his own memories as a kid growing up on a farm in America. The weight of memories shine particularly through the character of David, whose perspective full of wonder and curiosity feels like a docent for the story at times. Though even with a guiding character, Chung’s storytelling is a remarkable reflection of the entire family unit at the heart of this film. Everyone’s perspectives are seen and heard with such clarity. The performances gel like magic, and make it so easy to get completely lost in this story where intricate family dynamics play at the core.
The entire cast of Minari are brilliant to watch. They each play such fully realized characters and interact with each other in the most mesmerizing of ways. One of the most heartfelt dynamics is the relationship between David and his grandma Soonja. These two characters have remarkable arcs that play out powerfully. The majority of their interactions are playfully fractious; David’s clever pranks and inquisitiveness competes with his grandma's quick witted humour and fiercely protective nature. David has a heart that could stop at any moment, and when faced with the fear of death in one of the best scenes of the film, his grandma advises him what to say. “No thank you, heaven,” she tells him wholeheartedly. Youn Yuh-jung gives a stunning performance as Soonja; she is a force of nature to watch. Her comedic timing is wonderful, her lines are gold, and she has such a tenderhearted journey in the film’s emotional last act. David’s arc is also moving to watch, and Alan S. Kim’s remarkably perceptive screen presence gives so much heart to the story.
Adding to this gentle story of relationship dynamics are wonderful performances by Steven Yeun and Yeri Han, playing partners and parents who have conflicting hopes for their family. Jacob and Monica work in a factory as chicken sexers, which sees them separate male chicks from female chicks. Jacob in particular is known for being fast; he made a lot of money in California before moving his family to a house on wheels in Arkansas, a decision that understandably left Monica with a lot of hesitations. “We’re not staying long,” she tells her children when the family first sets eyes on their new home. The longer they adapt to their surroundings, the more cracks appear in Monica and Jacob’s marriage. They have their own dreams for the future of this family, particularly when it comes to doing what’s best for David and giving him an environment good for his heart. It’s moving to watch their arguments, especially from the children’s point of view.
Chung does a wonderful job of showing how one aspect of the family affects everyone; he holds up a mirror to family members as well, as they look to themselves for answers. “All we did was fight…is that why [David’s] sick?” Monica asks Jacob. Yeri Han beautifully portrays her character’s uncertainty, hopefulness, and thwarted inner dreams of her own. She also shares perfect chemistry with Steven Yeun, who gives a vividly lived-in performance as Jacob. Yeun brings to life his character’s contemplative nature and incredibly strong will in such a hypnotizing way. Jacob wants the absolute best for his family, and at the same time, is determined to carry the weight of this responsibility entirely on his shoulders. It’s something he feels he has to do, and this firm will trickles down to his family.
Beyond the outstanding ensemble, direction, and writing are beautiful technical marvels complimenting the film. Emile Mosseri, who composed the impeccable score for The Last Black Man in San Francisco, adds another jewel to his career with a dreamy score for Minari that echoes the tenderhearted quality of this story. Harry Yoon’s editing moves the film along at an incredibly tranquil and dreamy pace. Lachlan Milne’s cinematography captures such a specific setting and gives gorgeous weight to the simplest of moments. There are so many scenes that appear simple on the surface while, underneath, carry meaning for the characters and add layers to their identities.
Minari is a deeply resonating American story that portrays the hopes and dreams of a family at its core. Jacob works tirelessly to build his family a thriving future among American culture (which we see welcoming and non-welcoming sides of in the film). Throughout the story, Jacob feels a mounting responsibility to be a provider, and in many ways the farm becomes tied to his measure of personal success. Working outdoors makes him feel alive, a sentiment he shares with his children especially. Underneath this work is a desire for new familial beginnings where his children see him succeed and where everyone can thrive.