Minari (United States, 2020)

February 09, 2021
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Minari Poster

Despite the numerous inevitable similarities, every immigrant’s story is unique. It’s the commonality of experience, however, that allows us to appreciate the memories that form the basis of Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari. Beyond the cultural and religious differences lie the essential sparks of humanity that form the basis of every person’s existence. I’ve never owned a farm. I’ve never tried to sell vegetables for a living. I’ve never lived in the Midwest. I don’t speak Korean. Despite all of those things, I related to Minari because, although the characters are “foreign,” they seem familiar.

Chung’s fictionalized counterpart in Minari is six-year-old David (Alan Kim). The movie is largely shown through his eyes. He has come to a small town in Arkansas from California along with his older sister, Anne (Noel Kate Cho), and his parents, Jacob (Steven Yeun) and Monica (Yeri Han). They are soon joined by Grandma (Yuh-jung Young). They have come to this place – a mobile home in the middle of fallow farmland – to make a life. In California, they eked out a living by sexing chicks but Jacob wants more. His decision to move to the middle of nowhere, where a trip to church becomes an excursion, is a sore point with Monica, who hates the isolation. Jacob’s “peace offering” is to bring over her mother from Korea. Soonja turns out to be a live wire, swearing in front of her grandchildren and rejecting the “nurturing” reputation one expects from someone of her age.

The time is the ‘80s – a decade that seems familiar in so many ways but is distanced from today by the absence of cellphones and the Internet. On the farm, however, it might as well be decades earlier for all the role that technology plays. Rather than rely on a dowsing rod to locate the best place to dig his well, Jacob employs logic (something he will regret). To help with the fields, he hires a local Pentecostalist named Paul (Will Patton – the only English-speaking actor with a significant role), who knows farming but has a tendency to stop everything to praise the Lord.

There’s always a current of tension between Jacob and Monica, with him chasing the American dream while she submits to the drudgery of a long workday in order to bring home enough money for the family to survive. All of this is presented from David’s perspective, however, so we’re spared scenes of intimate acrimony. Likewise, Grandma Soonja is seen through his eyes and doesn’t meet his expectations even if she does “smell like Korea.” He has a heart murmur and is therefore limited when it comes to physical activities but Soonja believes that activity, even for one with his condition, is a necessity. Over time, these two (who circumstances dictate must share a room) develop a bond that is challenged by events that occur late in the proceedings.

Minari doesn’t do anything revolutionary. It also isn’t primarily about the racial or cultural schism between the family and the larger Arkansas community. If I have one complaint, it’s that the feels abrupt and a little unsatisfying in the way it tries to wrap everything up with a tacked-on epilogue. Chung avoids the most obvious areas of manipulation, never veering too close to “heartwarming” or overplaying some of the emotional and physical downturns that occur. The writer/director tries hard to make Minari what it is – a collage of remembrances seen through the eyes of a child then filtered through the perceptions of the fortysomething man he became. It’s a rewarding but not overpowering experience.

Minari (United States, 2020)

Director: Lee Isaac Chung
Cast: Steven Yeun, Yeri Han, Alan Kim, Noel Kate Cho, Will Patton, Yuh-jung Youn
Home Release Date: 2021-05-18
Screenplay: Lee Isaac Chung
Cinematography: Lachlan Milne
Music: Emile Mosseri
U.S. Distributor: A24
Run Time: 1:55
U.S. Release Date: 2021-02-12
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Adult Themes, Profanity)
Genre: Drama
Subtitles: English and Korean with subtitles
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1