If award season nominations are any indication—and they usually are—then Minari will be remembered as one the best films of the year. A modest story of a Korean immigrant family in the 1980s, Minari swept the top awards at Sundance, earned a Golden Globe nod, and made dozens of best-of lists. On the local level, it was named best narrative film by the North Carolina Film Critics Association.
While it’s true that you can’t always trust the critics, this time, you safely can. Director Lee Isaac Chung’s semi-autobiographical story follows a Korean-American family trying to adjust to small-town in life in Arkansas. Father, husband and would-be farmer Jacob Yi (Steven Yeun) has dragged his family inland from California. He hopes to stake a claim providing Korean vegetables to immigrant communities in the region.
Jacob’s wife Monica (Yeri Han) is dubious, but willing to give it a try. The two kids—six-year-old David (Alan Kim) and older sister Anne (Noel Kate Cho)—have childlike faith in their dad. Plus, living in a trailer is an exciting novelty (“It’s a house with wheels!”). Little David is the stand-in for director Chung, who based the film around his own memories of the year that his Korean grandma came to live on the family farm. Good choice: She’s pretty unforgettable. As played by veteran South Korean actress Yuh-Jung Youn, grandma Soonja is the bright and lovable heart of the film.
As a story, Minari is not too concerned with plot or incident. Instead, it’s a compassionately observed portrait of the emotional dynamics among the five family members. Little David doesn’t like grandma at first (“She smells Korean”) but soon comes to depend on her utterly fierce loyalty and love. Monica and Jacob’s marriage is severely strained by their new circumstances, and the film drills down deep into the unstable foundations of their devotion.
Lest this all sound too heavy, rest assured that Minari has its moments of gentle humor, many provided by Pentecostal field hand Paul (Will Patton), who defies expectations by proving himself decent and sincere, even when speaking in tongues. The story dodges many other formula traps, too. The Yi family’s small-town neighbors are never overtly hostile or racist. They’re mostly kind, actually, if a little clueless. Chung documents the inevitable micro-aggressions but stays away from the standard-issue redneck stereotypes.
As an emotional experience, Minari is, hmm, fulfilling is the word, maybe. It’s gratifying to be treated so respectfully by a filmmaker. Chung trusts us to have the patience and insight to appreciate the subtleties of his story. The performances match the material in this way, with the entire ensemble—even the kids—finding beautifully underplayed moments that are quiet and true.
Minari does have one conspicuous weakness, regarding cinematography, and it’s a real puzzler. Many of the image compositions and camera choices are so specifically weird that they must be deliberate, yet so awkward that they have to be considered mistakes. They’re little floating paradoxes, and they’re awfully distracting. When assembling delicate moments on film, the one phrase you don’t want in your audience’s mind is: Did they do that on purpose?
It’s not a big deal, in the end. Such is the strength of the storytelling and the acting that you’ll be too invested up in the characters to notice anything else. In its final scenes, Minari does that miraculous thing that good movies can do, dropping you right out of your head and down into your heart.
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