The Arkansas landscape is given a wonderful, magical quality throughout Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari (2020), stunning vistas gleaming in the radiant sunlight while buzzing insects and other creatures hide amongst long luscious grasses or gigantic swaying trees. Every corner of it seems to be brimming with life. It’s the perfect metaphor for the Yi family’s own hopes and dreams when they first arrive there, that blank rural space stretching out around them and offering so much promise for the future. But while the children (Alan Kim and Noel Cho) are impressed by their new home (“It’s like a big car!”), tensions are already rising between Monica (Yeri Han) and her husband Jacob (Steven Yeun), particularly when Jacob reveals he’s going to turn the land into his very own farm.
Monica might be apprehensive, but Jacob isn’t worried about his plans, no matter how challenging they are. After all, this is the 1980s, Ronald Reagan is in office, and the American Dream is really the only thing anybody needs to get by. Indeed, this is a story all about finding a place to make your mark and having the ambition to do it, a quality that Jacob clearly has in spades. “Working outdoors makes me feel alive,” he says at one point – a poignant moment that allows us to understand just why he’s invested everything into this idea, his excitement at being able to provide for his family in a more rewarding way particularly palpable. So when the reality is harsher than Jacob expected, we’re as crushed as he is. Every dry crop and lost sale is something that pains him and causes him to walk a little less tall, Chung’s delicate writing and Yeun’s understated yet emotional performance expertly portraying Jacob’s anxiety about what he’s putting his family through, as well as the failure he starts to feel like.
Elsewhere it’s a clash of cultures that is making it hard for other members of this Korean American family to adjust to rural Arkansas life, an idea that writer-director Chung explores in intriguing and very different ways throughout his narrative. While Monica is supportive of Jacob in his endeavours at first, for her the farm is anything but peaceful, the fact that they aren’t close enough to a hospital causing her to become increasingly concerned about what will happen to her son David (Alan Kim) who has a heart murmur. She also finds herself longing for her home country and missing the Korean community she was a part of in Calfornia, the isolation of the farm further emphasising her loneliness (something highlighted by Yeri Han’s moving performance, her emotions often barely contained beneath her stoic expression). For David though, America has been the only home he’s ever known, and that’s how he’d like it to stay thank you very much. He even stomps around in tiny cowboy boots – an image that shows us just how immersed in the culture he really is. So when his Grandma (played with great vivacity by Yuh-jung Youn) comes to stay and brings several changes to the household (including a healthy Korean drink to replace his beloved Mountain Dew), David suddenly starts to think that farm life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, especially when he has to share a room with her. “Grandma smells like Korea,” he complains to his sister Anne (Noel Cho) during one hilarious and telling exchange. “You’ve never even been to Korea,” she retorts.
While there’s a striking sense of time and place in Chung’s writing, it’s his ability to focus in on the distinctive, everyday details that makes Minari truly enchanting – moments that he captures with such vividness that they can be nothing other than real (Chung based the story on many of his own memories of growing up on a farm). Whether it’s sitting down for a game of cards, playing on a handmade swing, washing outside in the sunshine, or eating a banana with a slice of cheese, these scenes feel so authentic that it’s as if we’re watching an actual family onscreen, particularly as many of them involve the adorable Alan Kim and his impressive acting skills. A sequence in which he triumphantly runs away after tricking his Grandma is especially hilarious, Kim’s enthusiastic, endearing performance allowing us to side with him, even when he’s misbehaving. Indeed, Chung’s emphasis of the lighter, funnier touches are what makes his film such a wonderful experience, these moments drawing us into the Yi’s world and letting us laugh alongside them as they try and adjust to their new rural life. We’re so enraptured by it all that when the emotional notes of the story are revealed, they seem to come out of nowhere, hitting us that much harder and helping us identify with the family’s struggles even more.
With that compelling mix of comedy and drama working alongside his poignant and intimate writing, Chung turns this into a richly-textured portrait of family life, his confident direction of the brilliant cast further adding to the film’s realism. He explores those themes of cultural differences, ambitions and the American Dream in a refreshing, engaging manner without straying into the one topic we’re expecting to see about an immigrant family, instead showing the Yi’s being welcomed with open arms by the people of Arkansas – something that could have been sickly sweet, but which Chung portrays in a genuine, heartwarming way. With breathtaking cinematography by Lachlan Milne and a spellbinding score by Emile Mosseri to match that beautiful, sublime landscape, this is a mesmerising, tender film with a delightful message at its heart about family and the sacrifices we make for those we love. The only flaw is that it ends, so captivating is the world Chung has created that you’ll want to stay in the company of the Yi’s for a lot longer than its 1 hour 55 minute running time.
(Originally posted on The Digital Fix: https://www.thedigitalfix.com/film/film_review/gff-2021-minari)