It’s the 1980’s and the Yi family have re-located from California to Arkansas in search of the ever-elusive American dream. Damned if he’ll spend his life as a chicken sexer, Jacob (Steven Yeun) is determined to start his own Korean vegetable farm despite the turbulent times and financial peril he must face to do so.
Minari is unabashedly a straight up, familial drama. Exploring the bonds between husband and wife, parent and child and finding the circumstances in which they buckle, break or strengthen. There is disfunction from the start when Jacob presents the Yi family with their new home, a mobile trailer in the middle of a 50-acre plot of land. ‘This isn’t what you promised’ says Monica his wife played by Yeri Han, as she ungracefully clambers up through the front door in the absence of stairs, her face unobviously bitter while taking in their new house. Their kids, David and Anne, played by Alan Kim and Noel Kate Cho respectively don’t share their mother’s scepticism and instead set about exploring. Jacob promises things will be different, that this is the start of a better life and though you want to believe him, you don’t.
The subsequent two hours are gentle and slow but never dull. Lachlan Milne’s gloriously composed camerawork is hypnotic, complimented by Emile Mosseri’s elegant, Oscar-nominated score to create a flowing, graceful film. All under the watchful direction of Lee Isaac Chung (also nominated) who, being an Arkansas-born son of Korean immigrants, is clearly and deftly injecting his own life experiences into the characters and story. He manages to conjure a tangible essence of the time and place the characters inhabit and it invites you into that world to closely study the subtleties of their interactions. As a viewer you are simply a fly-on-the-wall observer of this family, finding their way through life, and not for one moment does the film eject you from that experience where one less thorough in it’s details and less deliberate in it’s pacing, would.
Performance-wise, Yeun dominates the screen wherever present, enjoying the lion’s share of screen-time and, off the back of a mesmerising turn in Burning, has now received his own Oscar nod. It’s a predominantly quiet performance doesn’t show the range I’d want to see from an Oscar Nominee. A few more highly pressurised scenes, demanding emotional suppleness, may have made him a front-runner but for me, the actors he’s up against are stronger contenders. Thoroughly deserving of her nomination is Yuh-jung Youn who plays Soonja, mother to Monica and grandmother to the kids. Her character’s arrival infuses the film with some levity and charm and also provides a vessel through which to explore Monica and David’s internal struggles. But despite Yeun and Youn being the two nominations in the acting categories, there isn’t a single weak link in the cast. Yeri Han is devastatingly truthful as this mother, wracked with worry and fear for her family, fighting her instincts to remain loyal to a husband who is risking everything. She is very much the glue holding it all together and her gradual wearing over the course of the film is played expertly. Alan S. Kim and Noel Kate Cho are both entrusted with scenes far above what could be expected of such young actors and they rise to the occasion in their first ever roles. In particular, Kim’s innocence and endearing mischeif is a welcome sweetener to what could have ended up a rather heavy film and his relationship with Grandmother Soonja is arguably the most enjoyable of the film. As the only non-family character with any noteworthy screen-time, veteran Will Patton supports as the intensely devout christian Paul and often steals the show when he’s on screen, mostly sharing his time with Jacob, helping out on the farm. His character offers a western dimension, that jars with and compliments the Korean lifestyle simultaneously and through their shared devotion to the farm, forms an unlikely friendship with the Jacob and the Yi’s.
Ruling – Some may find this film a rather dull affair and, in fairness, I can appreciate that perspective. But to me, Minari is a rare example of a film in which every component comes together, clicks into place and results in something far greater than the sum of its parts. It’s an experiential film, layered with semi-autobiographical elements that play with our emotions in interesting and unexpected ways as we sit and revel in this small corner of the world Lee Isaac Chung has so deftly rendered.