At first blush, Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari seems like it will be an immigrant story about a Korean family moving to Arkansas to start a farm. But rather than lean heavily on how the Yi family relates to their American surroundings, Chung wisely turns the story inward to show how immigrant aspirations are woven together with family struggles. The magic of Minari is in how Chung shows that Korean and American identities blend together for a first-generation family but conflict doesn’t necessarily arise from culture or national identity. Sometimes, it’s from a husband and wife having different priorities or a grandson not understanding his grandmother. Minari works so well not because it’s universal or unique but because it manages to be both.
Korean immigrants Jacob (Steven Yeun) and Monica (Yeri Han) move with their kids David (Alan Kim) and Anne (Noel Kate Cho) from California to a trailer in Arkansas because Jacob dreams of becoming a farmer. Although Monica is unhappy with the decision, she decides to give it a shot, although she’s concerned not only about the economics, but the stress this move is putting on their family. As tempers start to flare between Jacob and Monica, they invite Monica’s mother (Yuh-Jung Youn) to help with the kids. As Jacob struggles to get the farm going with the help of his deeply religious neighbor Paul (Will Patton), David and Grandma butt heads.
What makes Minari so vibrant is how Chung captures the highs and lows of a family while retaining the power of both. When Minari is funny, it’s really sharp and feels like Chung relating stories from his childhood. But when the film is tough, it plays to the honest difficulties in Jacob and Monica’s relationship. It’s a strange thing to try and tell the story from the perspective of both an adult and a child, but Chung makes it work. It never feels awkward to go from David squaring off against Grandma to Jacob and Monica having tough conversations about what they want out of life. By approaching the film from both perspectives, Chung strikes a balance that makes the story feel fully realized. It’s not solely the idyllic childhood stories of young David nor is it only the story of marital troubles between Jacob and Monica.
But both perspectives feel lived-in and real with a lush, vibrant cinematography that helps bring us closer to the story. There are plenty of times where Chung could have made Minari a dour affair, and instead it feels like an honest memoir that doesn’t view the past through rose-colored glasses nor does it become overbearing in its darker moments. The amount of empathy Chung has for these characters make Minari bigger than just “family drama” or “immigrant story.” Those are both important aspects, but both descriptions feel facile and fail to encompass the nuance and depth of the story Chung is telling.
What I love about Minari is how it allows me to witness the richness of what the Yi family is going through without ever feeling like I’m prying into their private affairs. Instead, it feels like someone telling me about their upbringing but with the maturity to understand what their parents were going through. Yes, there are elements of an immigrant story like the foods the Yi family enjoys and how David feels torn between the stereotypical American grandmother he believes Grandma should be and how her Korean-ness grates against those childish preconceptions. And there’s also the universality of a husband and wife fighting over what’s more important: work or family. But when you blend all of it together, you get a singular film like Minari, and it’s one I won’t soon forget.
Minari does not currently have a release date.
For more of our Sundance 2020 reviews, click the links below:
- The Assistant
- Bad Hair
- Boys State
- Crip Camp
- The Glorias
- Happy Happy Joy Joy: The Ren & Stimpy Story
- The Last Thing He Wanted
- Lost Girls
- Miss Americana
- Never Rarely Sometimes Always
- The Night House
- Palm Springs
- Promising Young Woman
- Run Sweetheart Run
- Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made