The Pitch: Writer/director Lee Isaac Chung is tackling an interpersonal drama about a Korean family attempting to achieve the American dream in the Deep South of the 1980s in Minari. Does the latest A24 effort have what it takes to stand out in a crowded field of awards-season contenders?
Like A Short Story: Sometimes, a great film is like a great short story, tunneling deep into the psyche of its limited set of characters while telling a tender, keenly felt story that doesn’t attempt to go big in its scope or vision. Such is the case with the new drama Minari, which benefits enormously from writer/director Chung mining effectively from his childhood. Minari has already made plenty of waves as we approach the delayed 2020 Oscar season, and the film’s small-scale leanings make it an enormously effective and powerful character study with surprising staying power.
Alan Kim plays David, the youngest member of the Yi family, who begin the film by uprooting themselves from California to the backwoods of Arkansas during the Reagan administration. It’s all because David’s determined father Jacob (Steven Yeun) is convinced that he can create a successful business by growing Korean produce and selling it to vendors throughout the South.
As the story progresses, it becomes clear that Jacob’s fierce and unwavering belief that he can find his own version of the American dream on his meager farm is a belief that only he truly shares, often to the detriment of David, his older sister and his mother Monica (Ye-ri Han). As Jacob and Monica supplement their tiny income by sexing chicks at a local farm, David begins a shaky relationship with his grandmother Soon-ja (Yuh-jung Youn), whose personality is often at odds with those of her more Americanized brood.
Pure and Authentic: Minari works for many reasons, but chief among them is an undeniable authenticity. Filmmakers are sometimes prone to turning their own lives into stories, but it’s rare for such a story to feel so universal and recognizable, especially to those who don’t have Korean heritage. This film’s own heritage has been hard to pin down for some awards bodies, such as the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which argued Minari was only eligible for a Best Foreign Language Film nomination, in spite of the film being set and shot in America and featuring characters who speak the English language. It’s worth noting here only in the context that Minari is unquestionably an American movie. There are functional reasons why — it was shot and set in America, and includes a number of American actors. But on a creative level, it’s equally true because the way Minari depicts the quest of the American dream is wholly correct.
The concept of the American dream always sounds admirable and idealized, but Minari acknowledges the harsh reality of how it looks and feels different for everyone, especially those people who immigrate to the country to achieve the success they’ve heard about from others. The pitfalls and appeals of that dream are embodied in the performances by Yeun — best known from AMC’s The Walking Dead — and Han. Jacob and Monica represent the two halves of the American dream. There’s the aspiration inherent in hoping that you can find financial success by working hard and convincing others of your worth, as seen through Jacob. And Monica, working equally long hours and balancing being a caring mother to her children (including David, who has a heart condition that endangers him doing even basic kid-friendly activities), represents the reality crashing down that aspiration and hope. These performances are as deft as Chung’s script, as humane and painful and understandable.
A Cinematic Slice of Life: The other killer performance in Minari — though there are no slackers among the cast, including Kim and character actor Will Patton as a deeply religious local man who helps Jacob on his farm — comes from Yuh-jung Youn as Soon-ja. Though the old woman follows an internal set of rules that often collide with a more American way of living, Youn makes Soon-ja a quirky character without ever seeming like she’s cartoonish or self-consciously kooky. When, in one key moment, David pulls a particularly juvenile prank on his grandmother, her response is at once hilarious and genuine.
It’s that genuine quality that makes Minari stand out. When, for example, David snaps, “I’m not pretty, I’m good-looking!”, it elicits laughter of recognition. And when Jacob keeps trying to convince those around him that his business hopes are achievable, it inspires grander emotions that are fully earned. Minari is a story told by a masterful filmmaker who not only knows every beat and every arc, but knows how to translate his own life into a cinematic slice of life that has a big-tent approach.
The Verdict: Minari is at once incredibly specific and perfectly universal. It’s also a firm announcement of a major filmmaker who needs to be given carte blanche to do whatever it is he wants. Lee Isaac Chung’s smooth ability to craft relatable drama makes him a director to pay attention to. It’s not just that Minari is captivating in the moment. Like the best films, it has images and scenes that will stay with you long after the film is over.
Where’s It Streaming? Minari hits select theaters and Video On-Demand on February 12th via A24.