Synopsis: In the Reagan-era 80s, first-generation Korean-Americans Jacob (Steven Yeun) and Monica (Han Ye-Ri) Yi, along with their children Anne (Noel Kate Cho) and David (Alan Kim), move from California to rural Arkansas, where Jacob dreams of establishing a farm. Soon, they are joined by Monica’s free-spirited grandmother Soon-Ja (Youn Yuh-Jung) and local eccentric Paul (Will Patton). Slowly but surely, the harsh realities of life, such as health and financial difficulties, begin to intrude on Jacob’s American dream.
1. The word that best describes Minari is ‘authentic’. Writer-director Lee Isaac Chung grew up the son of Korean-American immigrants in rural Arkansas, and that sense of verisimilitude suffuses every second of Minari. It is also a refreshing change of pace – an immigrant story that avoids the cliched ‘we don’t like yer kind ’round ‘ere’ confrontation, (1) and one that chooses to focus instead on the more existential questions of the immigrant experience, such as the meaning of home and how to maintain the balance between ambition and survival. Even with all these positives however, Minari is far from a perfect film. Its symbols are too rigidly obvious and its plot is resolved in an overly tidy and abrupt manner unbefitting of the rest of its realistic messiness. Yet there is still plenty to love about it, from the strength of its performances to the film’s appreciation (and accompanying shots) of the bucolic American countryside. On the whole, Minari is a fine little movie, and a more than worthwhile diversion into a world that is rarely ever touched upon with this much sensitivity and authenticity.
2. Minari is a movie that is primarily concerned with the day-to-day routines of the immigrant experience. Most immigrant stories tend towards the melodrama, and while this is not without reason, (2 Minari’s main focus is on the more humdrum (but no less important) aspects of the immigrant experience. Issues of managing finances, balancing survival with ambition, and homesickness are dealt with in a delicate and realistic manner that feel extremely true to life. This is a film littered with grace notes, from Monica practicing chicken sexing at home in order to do a faster job at work to the ease at which the children slip in and out from Korean to English depending on context. The word ‘procedural’ has become a bad word thanks to formulaic crime dramas on TV, but something like Minari feels like the best kind of procedural drama, except in this case, the procedure involved is not cracking a case or solving a murder, but is instead about how to build a life in a foreign land. Chung’s own history mirrors that of the Yi family, and this much is obvious in the detail that goes into how Jacob sets up his farm, or the process that is required for him to find a suitable buyer for his crops. It is in these small, human details where Minari really sings, as Chung and his collaborators impress upon the viewer just how difficult it is for the Yi family and the level of resilience and grit it takes for them to not just survive, but thrive. Oh, and special mention to the scene where Monica cries over receiving food products from home, because I have been there.
3. Much of Minari’s success also comes from its cinematography and acting. For the former, both Chung and DP Lachlan Milne do a bang-up (dare I say almost Malickian) job of capturing the beauty of the American countryside. In order for Minari to work, the viewer needs to be convinced that Jacob’s dream is worth the immense toil the family puts into it. As such, the film’s beautiful cinematography is not just a visual treat, but narratively vital. There is something quintessentially ‘American’ about the way Minari portrays the land – as an inviting open frontier ripe for the claim. Only of course, that trope has been codified in decades of storytelling as the preserve of the white man, and so there is something a little subversive about having this particular story be told about a group of Asian immigrants. Don’t get me wrong, Minari is hardly a radical deconstruction of American mythos, but in its own gentle way, the film does challenge quite a few of the assumptions built up over the years.
4. Minari is also excellently acted across the board, and is one of the better ensemble casts I have seen in a while. A major contribution to the performances is the depth of Chung’s screenplay, which gives each character (fine, Noel Kate Cho’s Anne does not really have more to her than ‘sensible older daughter’) detailed and realistic motivations. In particular, Han Ye-Ri’s Monica is a character who in a lesser film would almost certainly be reduced to ‘shrewish nagging wife standing in the way of her noble husband’s ambitions’, but in this one, is a fully realised individual with very believable (and understandable) doubts about her husband’s pipe dream, especially in light of the family’s financial struggles. Han does a magnificent job as a character attempting to remain supportive while cracking apart at the seams with worry and stress. On the other end, Steven Yeun (whose post-Walking Dead career keeps rising ever higher) matches her beat for beat with an empathetic performance as a man who desires for more than just subsistence, and Yeun toes the line perfectly between the noble ideal of ‘doing it for my family’ and the selfish goal of ‘doing it for my ego’. Again, it really must be stressed how finely poised Minari is, that the film is weighted towards neither of these two characters. Aside from the two leads, the two clear breakout roles come from two actors on the opposite end of the age scale, with Alan Kim delivering a stellar performance far beyond his years as David, while veteran Youn Yuh-Jung brings a spark of puckish energy as the mischievous Soon-Ja.
5. Unfortunately, Minari does not deal with its symbolism with nearly the same delicacy as it does its characters. It is all a little too thuddingly obvious – why yes, the titular plant that can flourish under any difficult circumstance even though others consider it a weed is representative of the family, however could you tell? David Lynch territory, this is not. Perhaps I would not be so perturbed by this obviousness if it was not juxtaposed against the subtlety of the character work, and if the film didn’t underline its symbols so much – a particular conversation early on between Jacob and David about chicken sexing might as well come with subtitles blaring ‘THIS IS MEANINGFUL’. Still, this is a minor issue compared to the film’s ending. Like the last film I reviewed, Minari really trips over its own feet at the end, thanks to a denouement that wraps up the film’s central conflicts in such a neat bow that it casts a serious shadow over the rest of it. After all, how seriously can I take all these issues if one single (albeit major) event can resolve everything? Furthermore, shouldn’t that major event lead to even more strife and exacerbate the existing conflicts even more? Instead, the film cuts itself short with such immediacy and force that it rivals the fairytale ending of ‘and they all lived happily ever after’. Few films need to go on longer, but by god does Minari need an additional five to ten minutes, if only to deal with all the implications of its climax and to let the ending breathe. Just like Promising Young Woman, it is so, so unfortunate that a film this good cuts itself off at the knees right at the moment when it should be delivering a lasting impression.
6. Still, a bad final five minutes hardly invalidates the fantastic one hundred that came before it. Minari is still an excellent watch, thanks to the delicacy of its character work, the authenticity of its screenplay and mise-en-scene, as well as its empathetic observation of a world rarely touched upon by other mainstream-ish films. It falls short of brilliance thanks to an unfortunate obsession with underlining its symbols and a hasty ending that resolves its conflicts too easily, but nonetheless, a story this well told, this well performed, and this well shot deserves to be viewed by as many people as possible. And if nothing else, it offers the viewer a wonderful opportunity to bask in the beauty of the American landscape, because lord knows we could all use a little peaceful meditation right now.
Minari is currently playing in theatres in Singapore.