Minari may seem like a lovely, gentle family drama with an almost dreamlike quality but its emotional core packs a real punch.
The kind of punch that reaches deep inside you and pulls you into its orbit so that you never forget the experience of when you first saw Minari. Weeks, maybe even months later, you’ll still be thinking about it.
Since its premiere at Sundance Film Festival a year ago, it’s been slowly building momentum and now it’s firmly in the Oscars race with American writer-director Lee Isaac Chung and his cast including The Walking Dead star Steven Yeun on the cusp of Academy glory.
And it’s no wonder Minari has made such a splash with critics and audiences. It’s a film that works on every technical level such as the writing, performances and cinematography, but it’s more than just that.
Minari has a soul that seems to transcend the screen, an ineffable quality that makes its stirring story about a striving Korean-American immigrant family in 1980s rural Arkansas so vivid and transportive.
While it’s affecting, it avoids over-tipping its hand into sentimentality or cloyingness. It’s not a film that manipulates you into weeping uncontrollably – its poignancy is more subtle and enduring.
Jacob Yi (Yeun) moves his family from a city in California to a 50-acre plot of land in Arkansas, making the journey in their station wagon and rental truck.
His wife Monica (Han Ye-ri) is mortified at the trailer home she and her two children David (Alan Kim) and Anne (Noel Kate Cho) are now to live in, as well as the isolation from any Korean-American communities. Plus, the occasional tornado threat.
Jacob’s dream is to farm the land, to plant Korean vegetables in this fertile American soil to sell to Korean businesses in cities a few hours’ drive away. It’s his American dream – he wants to literally grow a future for his family.
Farming the land isn’t always easy, and Jacob saves money by drawing water from his own found well and hiring a mercurial local man named Paul (Will Patton).
David’s single-focused ambitions widen the rift between he and Monica. To ease the tension, David agrees to Monica’s mother Soon-ja (the absolutely wonderful Youn Yuh-jung) moving in with the family.
When the spirited and playful Soon-ja arrives from Korea with her bags of traditional medicine and chilli powder, the Mountain Dew-loving David is resistant.
This is a family that struggles to be on the same wavelength despite their obvious love for each other. It’s a story that’s as much about staying together as it is about integrating into their adopted home.
Moments of earwax plucking, sleeping on a bamboo mat in the heat and staring at a cup of putrid-smelling brown herbal tea are recognisable memories for many Asian immigrant families.
But even for audiences outside of the diaspora, the specificity of those moments will still be relatable to their own cultural or family quirks. Universality through specificity has become a fashionable concept in filmmaking, but there is a lot of truth to it.
And the specificity of Minari feels so authentic because it is an autobiographical story of Chung’s own upbringing in Arkansas.
Much of the film’s perspective aligns behind young David’s experiences but it’s Chung’s generosity and compassion towards Jacob and Monica that reveals his sophisticated storytelling.
Minari is Chung’s fourth narrative feature and he has said in interviews that he didn’t feel ready to tell his family’s story until recently. That recognition and understanding of your parents as complex humans with inner lives that exist away from their children is something that often only comes with maturity, time and distance.
In entrusting Yeun and Han with those phenomenal roles he’s written and directed, Chung has created a labour of extraordinary (sometimes unvarnished) love for his family but also for anyone lucky enough to experience this unforgettable film.
Minari is in cinemas now
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