By Christian DiMartino
I pretty much gave up on 2020 as a film year last March, whenever movie theatres shut down. I’m one of those who isn’t on-board with streaming taking over and all that, but I’ll take what I’m given I suppose. With that said, A24’s Minari, which appears to be gaining Academy Award traction, is a film that showed me that maybe there was more to 2020 than met the eye, and that maybe there is still work to be done.
The film, a semi-autobiographical work from writer/director Lee Isaac Chung, is small, in terms of its scale, scope, and story. Yet it’s a testament to Chung’s writing that the film is as successful as it is. On paper, it sounds dull. Yet watching Minari, what’s surprising is that while many of us can’t specifically relate to the central characters, you still find yourself relating to them. Because on the surface is a film about family, and how the love that a family shares for one another can overcome any hardship and obstacle. I’ve made it sound corny, but for a film that is sentimental, it doesn’t ever get syrupy. Chung has written and directed a film that, through and through, feels grounded in reality. There is nothing tremendously exciting in Minari, and yet it proves to be a rather absorbing experience because Chung has done a splendid job of pulling us into this family’s orbit.
Again, on paper, this doesn’t sound remarkable. Just look at the current synopsis that IMDb provides: “A Korean family starts a farm in 1980s Arkansas.” Sounds like a wild ride, huh? Well, no. That is what the film is about, but it’s so much more than that. Steven Yeun of The Walking Dead plays the patriarch, Jacob. Jacob is a loving, hardworking father in search of the American Dream, but also strives to make his family proud. When he and his family arrive at their new home in Arkansas, his children seem pretty okay with it, while his wife, Monica (Yeri Han) seems a bit upset. Monica feels a particular loneliness and sadness, and finds disappointment in their new living arrangements due to the size. She also worries about whether or not Jacob can achieve success in the area.
Jacob begins working in a chicken hatch, but eventually finds himself beginning a farm with Paul (Will Patton), who is nice, albeit unstable. Monica experiences a bit of happiness with the arrival of her mother (Yuh-jung Youn), who hasn’t even had the chance to meet their son, 4 or 5 year old David. David, for whatever reason, doesn’t much care for Grandma, and he lets it be known by telling her, peeing in her tea, etc. He’s quite the rascal.
Let’s look at that last detail for just a second. Watching Minari, you may find yourself getting a little irritated by David’s antics, especially since his Grandmother is as sweet and loving as can be. What is his beef with Grandma? Well, that’s just it: he’s a kid. The mind of a child works in mysterious ways- even David probably doesn’t know why he doesn’t like her, but kids being kids, of course he acts out. Monica’s depression is also something that is done rather effectively too. All Jacob is trying to do is what’s best for his family, and yet Monica longs to return back to California, where she believes they were happier. Yet she lashes out at Jacob because she doesn’t believe he can pull it off. Does she not believe in him, or does she simply miss home? Or maybe it’s just depression as a whole. Sometimes, depression lingers for reasons that are unexplainable, but in Monica’s case, it’s perhaps a lack of fulfillment.
Minari is a small film, and yet it’s a beautiful one, told effectively and delivered just as effectively because of the little details sprinkled in throughout. Each of these characters are beautifully established, in particular, Jacob, Monica, and Grandma. There is a good chance that Yeun and Youn will be up for Oscar nominations, and they deserve to be. Han deserves recognition as a mother who, like Jacob, just wants what is best for the family.
Minari is beautifully filmed and I also loved the score. What’s most impressive about Chung’s film though is the way in which he never manages to lose our attention. From beginning to end, I related to these people, and I cared for these people, even whenever they were doing things that I didn’t agree with. It’s a small film that feels like so much more; a slice of Korean-Americana; an interesting character study; a depiction of family and how not even the most drastic and difficult of obstacles can tear them apart. It’s a wonderful film where even in its quiet, simple moments, I could sense that I was watching something truly special. It’s a moving piece of work, and one of the year’s finest achievements.