There’s something simple, yet elegant about director Lee Isaac Chung’s latest feature, a semi-autobiographical tale base on his childhood growing up in America’s heartland.
The story is ordinary – and the cinema understated in large part – but there’s an ethereal quality to his film that opens with a young boy running in an empty field of green and never truly stops flowing in spite of the small character drama within.
Set during the 1980s in rural Arkansas, Minari follows the Yi family who move to a plot of land so Jacob can fulfill his dream of becoming a vegetable farmer selling his crops to an emerging Korean population in the South. His choices put a strain on his relationship with his wife, while his young son David contends with a health condition and his grandmother that he doesn’t consider to be his grandma.
Walking Dead and Burning star Steven Yeun centers the film with a driven, considered performance as Jacob, a man whose quest for the American dream begins to isolate him from the family he pulled from California. The forthright confidence of Jacob propels Chung’s narrative forward and allows the audience to examine the family dynamic in idyllic memory but with a hue of sadness and anger that pulls at the edges of this conceit.
It’s a performance that does tend to swallow the softer, almost muted work of Yeri Han as Monica who shines more in scenes opposite the young children rather than Yeun as her ability to draw compassion for Monica’s children far surpasses the anger she exudes during Monica’s conflicts with Jacob.
While Yeun is celebrated as the film’s lead, the true star of Minari is eight-year-old Alan Kim, who steals every scene he’s in as David with a childlike wonder and heart. Audiences experience the pain and uncertainty of the family’s plights through David’s eyes and Kim is a wide-open vessel through which viewers can be drawn into the story with his affable humor and inquisitive spirit.
The grandmother is expertly played by Yuh-jung Youn with a brash yet tender love that anchors the family – especially David and his mother. Moments with the other family members are important to the narrative of Minari, but the best work of the entire film is in scenes simply between Kim and Youn where the awkward unease of a boy meeting a relative for the first time melts into the emotional core thanks to tremendous chemistry between the two actors.
Will Patton’s Paul brings just the right amount of colorful twist to the story with his eccentric brand of Christianity challenging the Yi family.
It’s difficult to appreciate Minari receiving accolades in foreign language film categories simply because the majority of the film is in Korean with English subtitles because Minari is an American film about American immigrants living out the American dream. In some ways, it feels reductive to push Chung’s film out of categories and putting it in the box of “foreign film” as Minari deserves much more.
Chung directs from his own screenplay, which allows him to fully pull from his own childhood to make Minari feel both a distant memory and a clear and immediate reality. This is especially evident in the performances he is able to capture from Kim, Yeun and Youn and extends over to the visual artistry of the film.
The cinematography of Minari provides both a very muted, unobtrusive look for much of the film to allow for the audience to focus on the dialogue and performances, but it’s in the film’s more grandiose moments that director of photography Lachlan Milne’s work shines.
Capturing the countryside in bright, natural lighting, Milne provides a true sense of scale for the wide-open, limitless possibilities of the Yi family’s newfound life creating a farm and also Jacob’s personal hopes for the future as they grow and narrow over the course of Minari.
The film will likely make the cut for the Oscar Best Picture race, though it will probably see a stronger showing at the Film Independent Spirit Awards than with the Academy. Yeun could see his way into the best actor race in spite of a strong category while Youn should earn a supporting actress nomination but could miss out entirely.
Minari does suffer from not having a true theatrical release as the gorgeous panoramas and simple narrative beauty would create a terrific word-of-mouth campaign far stronger than the weaker one A24 has given it. With a digital release via video-on-demand to accent a small run in theaters, Minari should be the film ardent cinephiles with an eye for independent cinema seek out in preparation for the delayed awards season.