Minari is a film based largely on writer/director Lee Isaac Chung's own experiences of being of Korean descent and moving to middle-of-nowhere Arkansas in the 1980's in order for his family to start anew and his father to start a farm. It is then, obviously, a very personal story and therefore undoubtedly includes what must be several specific details that transport Chung back to what he likely remembers as a very brief, but meaningful time in his life. I say this up front because of how much the red hat the character of the father wears in the film struck me. Nothing is ever said about it, nothing really happens to it or with it, but it's always there; it's as if it is Jacob's (Steven Yeun) safety blanket and a staple of his appearance critical to how his children will always remember and picture him. I have a certain shirt I always associate my own father with and I'm sure this is true for many others as well, but it is the fact Chung's screenplay and eventual film make sure to include this level of detail while never zeroing in on it that really relays why Minari is not only a story of the American experience as seen through the lens of Korean heritage, but simply a story of the American experience; maybe even the most American of experiences. 

As Jacob along with his wife and children emerge from their vehicles after pulling up to their new house - on their new land - it's not hard to sense the contribution that at least Jacob is ready to make even if the rest of his family aren't sold on the idea yet. Much in the way a character later plants the Korean vegetable minari from which the film takes its name, Jacob is ready to put down his own roots, but unlike the minari Jacob is somewhat hesitant to begin to assume the values, behaviors, and beliefs of his new surroundings. It's in this kind of juxtaposition of Jacob wanting to utilize the land to fulfill his own dreams and his own purposes while expecting the land to take nothing from him in return that a sense of the family dynamic can be observed as well. As much as Jacob wants to fulfill the idea of the American dream that he's been chasing since moving from Korea a decade or so prior he is simultaneously driving away what would make achieving said dream worthwhile. Minari is a story of a family assimilating into their new environment, yes, but it's more specifically a story of the adjustment period within their own circle than it is with the one around them. It is due to the specificity in Chung's writing and the gentleness of his direction that the whole of the film is as significant as each individual moment. A masterclass in presenting complex emotions through a simple guise, Minari is an exceptional work.     
Monica (Han Yeri) and Jacob (Steven Yeun) move to Arkansas for a fresh start in Lee Isaac Chung's semi-autobiographical Minari.
© 2020 - A24

Chung, who has been making features for well over a decade, crafts Minari with the awareness of a seasoned director, but the vibrancy of someone fresh out of the womb. That is to say, Minari exists as this very observational exercise that carries on the tone that it is relaxed yet enlightened, but is also extremely precise in its intent to convey the heart of the characters it's studying. As previously noted, we meet Yeun's Jacob upon his arrival at this land he calls a dream while blissfully unaware this same land pushed the man who owned it before him into bankruptcy. Before Chung's camera finds Jacob though, we are introduced to what I would consider the film's lead in Alan S. Kim's David - a strikingly authentic six year-old who takes us in almost immediately not only to his world, but his perspective. Chung makes it seem easy, but the ability one must possess and further - communicate - through every facet of their story in order to have the mind of a six year-old be at the forefront while also being able to hone in on the mature conflicts and discussions that expose the heartbreak and devastation of the adults around David is kind of astonishing; that Chung conveys the idea of coping with the fact not all American dreams go according to plan when David's only real priority is making sure he gets his daily Mountain Dew is mindblowing. 

It is through this harmony of innocence vs. experience that Chung balances his film though, how he maintains the child-like wonderment of David exploring his new, wide open spaces while making something as seemingly simple as gaining access to running water another mountain for Jacob to climb and overcome. "Never pay for anything you can find for free," Jacob tells his son as they scout their land for the ground most likely to hold fresh water. While Jacob is hellbent on only adding more land to his name and beginning a farm that would supply surrounding vendors with authentic Korean fruits and vegetables for the 30,000 Koreans that immigrate to the United States each year his wife, Monica (Han Yeri), couldn't be less sure. Monica seemingly enjoyed their time in more metropolitan areas like Seattle and California as well as the circle of friends she'd made in each place and the sense of community they'd built - none of which seem like options in Arkansas. It's also noteworthy that from the first time we see Monica she is wearing a cross around her neck as if to symbolize how much the family's assimilated to this point and how important finding a new church family will be to affording this new place an actual chance. Jacob, Monica, and David are also joined by David's older sister, Anne (Noel Cho), who is on the cusp of becoming a teenager and therefore sees her role in this new place if not in this familiar dynamic as even more pressing than it was before. 

The family has moved to Arkansas in order to take advantage of the lower cost of living after barely scraping by in those larger, more densely populated areas for years. Jacob and Monica have worked as chicken sexers since moving to the U.S. with Jacob being more than ready to move on. They've taken jobs at a local hatchery to accrue some savings where the pacing is more accustomed to Monica's speed and Jacob can get the work done in enough time to that he can spend the rest of his days tending to his farm. While Monica may not have been fast enough in this role to adapt to the needs of their previous locations it also seems Jacob has leveraged his position as the primary breadwinner to take just as much care of his parents back in Korea as he did his own family. Not long after moving into their trailer the family is hit by traditional Arkansas tornadoes that tend to show up at any time of the year which spurns our first real insight into the history between Jacob and Monica while confirming what has only been suspected up to this point about David's health. David has a heart murmur and Monica is concerned by the fact they now live an hour from the nearest hospital. It is in these tension-filled moments where a storm is raging outside and arguments flair between the parents inside that Chung's gentle approach becomes key as he doesn't simply focus on the words flung back and forth between Yeun and Yeri's characters, but is adamant about highlighting the children's response and how it's impacting them while showing how they attempt to calm the arguing by throwing paper airplanes that say things like "Don't fight" on them toward their parents. It is this boiling up of anger and issues that have long went unsaid though that leads to what becomes the crux of Chung's film. 

Though Jacob seems to have tended to his parents as long as he could, Monica - an only child who lost her father in the war - has only her mother left who has remained in Korea. To assist in easing the transition to Arkansas, Jacob and Monica agree to have Monica's mother come live with them despite her clearly being the source of past disagreements. It is when Soonja (Yuh Jung Youn) arrives that Minari really hits its stride as we instantly fall for her sly, foul-mouthed, but incredibly loving grandmother. David, on the other hand, is not so sure. While David is wholly Korean in terms of his heritage, he’s never actually been to Korea and his Americanized perception of what grandmothers are supposed to be is completely altered by this woman he's never met, but is now forced to share a room with. Much like his father's red hat, I imagine this time in which Chung spent with his grandmother truly left an impression on him as he depicts the arc of their relationship and eventual bond to such a perfect understanding that there is no question just how precious this woman in fact was and how much she came to mean to him.

David (Alan S. Kim) and his older sister Anne (Noel Cho) assimilate to their new surroundings with more ease and understanding than their strained parents.
© 2020 - A24 

Watching Minari feels like learning how well movies can be made for the first time; what movies can truly be when at their most persuasive and powerful. While having largely praised Chung's warm, tender directorial touch that ushers his memories through a movie-like structure the ensemble here is due just as much credit for bringing Chung's vision to life. Of course, cinematographer Lachlan Milne's (Hunt for the Wilderpeople) beautiful compositions and composer Emile Mosseri's (The Last Black Man in San Francisco) elegant score only further assist in the building of such beauty around the duress of the characters, but again - this seems intentional with Chung maintaining that key balance between his specific experiences and the universal appeal of what his father, mother, sister, and grandmother were each going through. 

Yeun completely captures the conflicted inner-turmoil of a father trying his best to prove to his children that hard work and dedication pay off while contradicting his mission by becoming consumed by that drive and focusing his efforts in the wrong direction. There is a moment early in the film when Yeun's Jacob explains to his young son that in doing the monotonous work of checking the gender of thousands of chicks a day that males are often discarded because they don't taste good and can't lay eggs ultimately making them of little use. Besides the difficulty in explaining "discarded" to a six year-old, it's as if Jacob has made it his mission in life to make himself useful. Yeun will certainly garner awards attention for his performance here, but honestly the entire cast is deserving as Yeri's Monica is the heart of the picture with her tears poured over Korean anchovies, her constant warnings to David that he "not run" that pay off in the most perfect way I've seen a film's themes pay off in some time, to a climactic scene in which her censor falters and her disappointment in Jacob comes flooding out. It's damn near perfection. And while Youn has what could be said is the "showiest" role it is her turn as the carefree matriarch who takes all of life's troubles with a grain of salt that makes her the unsung hero of the piece. Her confidence and belief in David is genuinely moving after the rocky road they first share with one another (which produces some hilariously well-executed laugh out loud moments, by the way). As a viewer, we understand David's mother is simply looking out for his well-being when she asks him not to run, but the look Kim delivers when David hears someone compliment his strength is priceless. Even Cho who admittedly receives the short end of the stick for the first half of the film is given an opportunity to be more defined as a character when she somewhat takes over as a primary caretaker to David. One scene in particular that has Anne asking David who he'd want to live with should their parents split is especially devastating. 

One would be remiss to discuss Minari without making mention of Will Patton though as, from the first close-up Chung delivers of him, the actor is largely disarming and completely committed to this role of a war veteran where the repercussions of such have manifested in delusions while somehow relaying themselves as both comforting and endearing. Maybe it's Patton's voice or simply the pure virtue he exhibits that makes his Paul as captivating as he is crazy, but he magnificently adds to the allure of the Ozarks. Minari, much like the plant from which it takes its name, is wonderful in that it can be used for anything; it's as uplifting and reaffirming as it is funny while also proving to be earth-shatteringly bitter and completely crushing when necessary. Minari blew me away. Every character so well-realized, every piece of dialogue so meaningful, with the structure and pacing embodying perfection. I absolutely loved it...and I promise it has nothing to do with me having lived in Arkansas and having felt like an outsider for the majority of my life. Okay, maybe a little bit, but it's still the best movie of the year regardless. 

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