One of the most exciting and talked about features from this year’s Sundance Film Festival was Lee Isaac Chung’s “Minari”. The film won two of the festival’s top awards and earned high praise for its lead Steven Yeun. A star on the rise, Yeun followed up his well received television run on “The Walking Dead” with several impressive big screen supporting roles most notably 2018’s critically-acclaimed “The Burning”. In “Minari” the 36-year-old Yeun teams with a superb cast to tell a tender slice-of-life story that leaves an unforgettable mark.
This is the fifth film from Chung and easily his most personal so far. Inspired by the birth of his daughter, Chung began writing down memories from his own childhood in Arkansas, most of them were from when he was around 6-years-old. He then began building a narrative arc, full of autobiographical nuggets but with its own distinct story to tell. The results are sublime. With “Minari” Chung has made a quietly affecting film, one of such understated beauty and with a soothing intimacy that stirs the soul.
Jacob Yi (Yeun) and his wife Monica (Yeri Han) came to America in the early 1970s, working briefly in Seattle before settling in California. There they had two children while making a living chicken sexing (for the uninformed like me, that’s when you separate male and female chicks). Tired of barely scratching by, Jacob moves his Korean-American family from California to rural Arkansas. That’s where Chung settles in and patiently unfolds his gentle yet bracingly authentic immigrant/family drama.
The film opens with Jacob driving a moving van and Monica close behind in their station wagon with the kids. They travel along several miles of gravel roads before finally arriving at their new home – a mobile home sitting on five acres of rugged Ozark farmland. All Jacob sees is potential and a chance at some version of the American Dream. Monica’s doubt is evident from her first startled look at the house trailer. “That’s not what we agreed on.” This sets up a crucial family conflict that simmers throughout most of the story.
As their parents struggle to plant their feet in their new life, the children offer a unique and unvarnished perspective. Their pre-teen daughter Anne (Noel Cho) seems mature beyond her age and you get the feeling she has a better idea of their situation than she lets on. Their 7-year-old son David (played by captivating newcomer Alan S. Kim) has a heart murmur but you’d never notice. Bright and precocious, David has a lively and mischievous spark and his childlike honesty offers up some of the film’s funniest moments. He has a scene-stealing charm that’s sure to leave people talking.
Feeling overwhelmed, the couple invite Monica’s mother Soonja (Yuh-Jung Youn) from Korea to help with the kids. The arrival of the abrasive and unrefined grandma creates an entertaining shift in the family dynamic. Youn is an absolute treat especially when paired with Kim. Their characters have a wonderfully combative relationship that inevitably softens over time. Soon Youn is teaching her grandson how to play cards while he introduces her to the simple joys of pro wrestling and “mountain water” (which is actually Mountain Dew). “It’s good for you“, he earnestly explains.
Even wackier is Will Patton’s Paul, an eccentric yet strangely endearing local who spends his Sunday’s dragging a life-sized cross down miles of dirt road. But he also knows how to work the land and when he’s not exorcising evil spirits from the Yi family’s property he’s helping Jacob jump-start his Korean vegetable garden. But it proves to be hard work (ask the property’s former owner) and it begins to eat into the family’s limited funds. And as Jacob is digging a well, buying a used tractor, and courting potential buyers of his produce, Monica is at home growing more and more disillusioned with her husband’s dream.
Perhaps Chung’s most powerful creative choice comes in his consistent focus on the personal moments. “Minari” is all about relationships: a struggling husband and wife, a puckish young boy and his crass grandmother, two community outsiders building a garden together. Big things do happen but often off screen or in the background. Instead Chung relishes the intimate interactions which are so often found in the minutiae of everyday living. And while the film does deal with a Korean-American family’s assimilation into a white rural community, Chung’s beautifully realist lens is much more focused on the personal things that bring us together and sometimes tear us apart.
I can’t help but mention a quiet but meaningful scene where Soonja takes her grandson to a creek on the edge of the family’s property. There she takes some seeds brought from Korea and plants minari along the bank (minari is an East Asian herb that can grow almost anywhere). Over time the foreign plant takes root and flourishes in the fertile Arkansas soil. It’s a small piece of story so sweetly told and ripe with meaning. It ends up being one of the film’s most poignant metaphors while highlighting one of its many thoughtful themes.
With its emotionally textured story, captivating performances, and lived-in production design, “Minari” takes us on an immersive personal journey firmly anchored in the human experience. It’s a thoughtfully subdued film yet one bursting with naturalistic beauty. Within minutes I was caught up in Lee Isaac Chung’s clear-eyed true-to-life perspective and swept away by the aching rhythm which moves us from one scene to the next. I can’t quit thinking about it. Like I said, it really leaves its mark. “Minari” is scheduled for a limited release on December 11th ahead of its full release February 12, 2021.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS