Steven Yeun is superb in Lee Isaac Chung's evocative tale of the American Dream, but young actor Alan S. Kim steals the show
It would be easy to make assumptions about an awards-season film with the premise “an immigrant family tries to make it in ‘80s Arkansas.” Your mind instantly jumps to casual racism, community tensions, and overblown happy endings. Luckily, Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari has no interest in conforming to expectations, telling a far more subtle and downbeat story about how places become homes, how we might fail when trying to prove how useful we are, and the myriad strange ways that we attempt to show love.
Based in part on Chung’s own life, Minari follows the Yi family as they move to an Arkansas farm in an attempt to become self-sufficient and escape their demeaning chicken-sexing jobs. Patriarch Jacob (Steven Yeun) sees freedom and hope in the sweeping but remote land he’s bought, though his wife Monica (Yeri Han) is more sceptical, missing the social life they left behind in California, wishing to stay close to a doctor for the sake of their young son David (Alan S. Kim), who has a worrying heart murmur.
Chung lets us see the world through the eyes of each different family member, including foul-mouthed but incredibly loving grandmother Soonja (Yuh-jung Youn), who arrives from Korea to help take care of the kids. It makes for a fantastically rich home life, one that feels deeply real and lived in, keeping you invested in what is often an ambling, quietly told story. Minari is more concerned with character and little details than it is with plot, enveloping you in its world until a truly devastating finale hammers home just how much you care for all these characters.
Yeun follows up his career-best turn as the mercurial, terrifying Ben in Korean thriller Burning with another excellent performance – again mostly in Korean – though this time he’s far more reserved. Han and Youn also both impress, bringing a profound sense of history to their roles, but it’s Kim who really stands out. Only seven-years-old, he’s an absolute natural, funny and mischievous, stealing every scene he’s in.
David’s slightly antagonistic relationship with his grandmother is the true heart of Minari, as he slowly stops seeing her as an invading force and starts to bond with her in a very believable, moving way, but Chung finds time for plenty of other humane grace notes. A trip to the otherwise all-white town church initially has the standoffish tension you might expect, but a few notes of casual racism soon give way to something kinder, especially when David and his sister Anne (Noel Cho) make fast friends with some local kids.
Instead, the “immigrant conflict” comes through the farm, as Jacob battles to exert his control over this foreign soil to grow his own native crops, aided by PTSD-stricken and deeply devout Korean War vet Paul (Will Patton). Jacob and Paul’s dynamic is always compelling, with the steadfastly rational Jacob struggling to make sense of Paul’s spirituality and faith, and the moments in which the pair really come together are joyous.
Stylistically, Minari is a bit “Indie Movie 101,” shot and scored in the exact way you’d expect of a Sundance breakout, but it’s written and performed with such skill that it hardly matters. Chung draws the viewer in with empathy and a lightness of touch, folding you directly into this family unit until you feel their triumphs and pain as if they were your own.
Minari is available to stream on digital platforms from 2 April.Where to watch