After the year that was 2020, we need something positive in our lives and the cinematic landscape. Something to make us smile, make us think that good things can be possible again. That something could very well be Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari, a film about hopes and expectations, but also about possibilities.
The Yi family; father Jacob (Steven Yeun), mother Monica (Han Ye-ri), and their two American-born children Anne (Noel Kate Cho) and David (Alan Kim), move to rural Arkansas from California, Jacob hoping to start farming Korean vegetables. Things aren’t easy, but with some help from an eccentric local (Will Patton), and Monica’s mother Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung) they might be able to make it work.
The term 'coming of age movie' can at times feel like a banner to put across any character driven drama, and feels ill-suited to describing a film like Minari. 'Slice of life' would possibly be more accurate, but doesn’t quite convey the level of expression and emotional impact on display here. Minari is a beautiful and thoughtful drama with great performances all round. It tells its story of a South Korean family starting a farm in a way that both manages to express how their culture makes them different in this rural community and also make it feel universal in things like family bonds and the day to day troubles of life.
The score and cinematography lend an at times dreamy quality to events, although maybe memory would be more apt, as writer-director Lee Isaac Chung based a lot of Minari on his own childhood growing up on his family farm in rural America. Much of Minari is skewed towards a certain point of view, in this case David’s, Chung’s film analogue. Although it isn’t solely in the realm of memory as we get scenes, particularly ones of Jacob and Monica, that David couldn’t possibly have witnessed.
David as a character is the right mixture of precocious and cheeky, with Alan Kim never pushing the boundary for a believable film child. His heart condition is something that remains just beneath the surface of a lot of events, a complication that perhaps causes him to be alittle more sheltered than the average child. His sister Anne is much more practical and occasionally given to eye-rolling at her sibling’s antics, but she is clearly on good terms with her brother, distracting him during one of their parent’s fights by writing "DON’T FIGHT" on paper aeroplanes and throwing them in-between the adults. They are further removed from South Korea than their parents, but everyday moments of thoughtless racism are still encountered, but quickly set aside in the name of hoping to fit in. It’s very telling that we never see the kids in school, possibly because the confinement and structure of such an environment would be too at odds with the pastoral one on the family farm.
Jacob is constantly chasing the idea of a better life, first by leaving Korea for America, then by buying this farm. When talking to David about sexing chicks he says the males are disposed of because they don’t have any use as meat or for eggs like the females do, and that as boys they need to prove their usefulness. This is really at the heart of Jacob as a character and makes him both endearing and frustrating. You want him to succeed, to claim his little piece of this countryside, but his personal goal to prove himself can be at the cost of the comfort and wellbeing of his own family, and at times you can’t help wishing he could stop chasing what he wants to spend some time with what he has. Yet you never doubt his love for his family, despite the growing wedge between him and his wife Monica. He’s a fascinating character, and Steven Yeun’s performance is flawless. There are also some really interesting interactions with Paul (Will Patton), a hired hand on the farm who has a particular relationship with religion, and is in some ways an outsider in the community more than the Yi family.
One of the biggest joys is Youn Yuh-jung as Soon-ja, Monica’s mother and David and Ann’s grandmother, brought to America from Korean to help watch the kids. David initially dislikes her because she is not what his American-born ideal of a grandma should be; sweet and soft and baking cookies. Whilst she may at first be a disappointment to David, Soon-ja is a fun delight with her gambling, swearing, TV-watching ways. She also has no intention of shielding David from the world because of his medical condition, something Monica frequently does. She has insight and practical wisdom, which we see in one scene of her pointing out how hidden dangers are much more harmful than dangers you can see, but with just enough of a mischievous streak to prevent her from becoming a cliché. They make a great pair, and their scenes are probably the most heartfelt and enduring of the film.
Together, David and his grandmother plant the titular Minari, a simple vegetable that Soon-ja brought with her from Korea. So we have something that has been replanted away from its native soil but has shown resilience to flourish in its new location. A little heavy handed as metaphors go, but it doesn’t take away from all the good things the film offers. Minari is both a delight and a soothing balm to watch, showing us the best in independent cinema and human nature, and does so with humour and delicate moments of emotional impact. It’s a story to remind us of the potential of film, and after the year we’ve all had it’s extremely welcome.
Minari is released in the US on February 12 and in the UK March 19.