Featuring incredible performances, Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari provides an intimate glimpse into a Korean family chasing their own dream, exploring a deep understanding of empathy and unavoidable difficulties making it one of Sundance’s best films.
Sometimes, you can feel that the movie you’re watching is special. The moving images on the screen displayed in front of you resonate far beyond the confines of the theater. You might feel this way one or two times in a given 12 months in film. The year 2020 has its first special film in Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari. The new A24 feature follows a Korean-American family as they move to Arkansas, starting a farm in search of an American dream and a more successful life. With a focus on the father, Jacob (Steven Yeun), Minari details the different relationships between three generations of family members, looking deep inside the way we interact with others as our happiness is on the line.
Chung gives each character adequate room to breathe, depth for the children David (Alan Kim) and Anne (Noel Cho), Jacob’s wife Monica (Han Yeri), and Monica’s mother Soonja (Yuh Jung Youn), the grandmother who comes to live with the group towards the end of the first act of the film. Chung never reveals too much about each characters’ highs and lows, or even their inner wants and needs. The story plays out with a careful speed, each conversation adding more layers to each family member, opting for small bits of information rather than initial exposition.
The family lives on a rolling house, owning acres of land that Jacob hopes to turn into a profitable farm. Supplanting their income by chicken sexing at the local plant, the family puts everything into Jacob’s vision, one aided by their religious neighbor Paul (Will Patton). Jacob and Paul work hard to build up the farm, cutting corners and saving money when they can, like Jacob digging large holes and using groundwater for the crops. As he tells his son and heartbreaker David, you have to use your head, though this film aptly leans on the hearts of its characters far more often.
As Jacob hits countless setbacks, his relationship with his wife deteriorates. The introduction of grandma Soonja doesn’t help the family’s increasing frustration, but the audience is given little respites of laughter and joy throughout. We see David make a friend and teach him a Korean card game, while Soonja becomes enamored with pro wrestling. We watch Jacob find the smallest of successes and Monica find new ways to support and love her husband’s dreams. We even see David, who has a heart condition, have the strength to run down the street.
With a soaring score by Emile Mosseri and striking yet simple visuals, Minari transplants you into this family’s world in Middle America. Chung avoids the racist neighbors, the unaccepting church, and other oft-used pitfalls in films about minorities, focusing on their relationships with each other and not with the outside world. The film feels rooted in real experiences, and the specificity of every action gives you a clear view of these people, like their unabashed love of Mountain Dew or the poignancy of the minari crop growing by the trickling river. Nearly every scene is important and every interaction matters, with the growing family separation taking center stage. Jacob’s desire to succeed in his own eyes and the eyes of his children breaks your heart over and over again, leaving you rooting for every person in the family to be happy. Chung’s film doesn’t have any villains or heroes, just people that are trying to make the best situation for those around them.
Yeun leads the cast to incredible heights, with little Alan Kim making a big splash, and accomplished actor Yuh Jung Youn giving another fantastic A24 grandma performance. The small interactions make this film magical, though. Each actor steals scenes. Each character shines, even for just a brief moment. The relationship between David and his grandmother hits hardest, and each time they’re both on screen, the film becomes more and more special.
Minari is the type of film you will want to watch again only a few minutes after the credits have rolled. Chung’s film contains the power, thoughtfulness, and rare awe-inspiration that makes you happy movies exist in the first place.
This review was filed from Sundance 2020. Check out all of our coverage from the festival.
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Based in Brooklyn, NY, Michael is a regular critic for Ready Steady Cut and also writes for Cinema Sentries, The Film Experience and Film Inquiry.