South Korean cinema has been some of the best in recent memory. Films like last years’ Parasite and even Burning have brought widespread awareness to the creativity of Korean artists in the United States. This year we have Minari, an immigration story based on director/writer Lee Isaac Chung’s childhood. This film is an American story of survival and of a family who is just trying to get by in rural Arkansas. The fact that they are Korean immigrants is both the point of this story and has nothing to do with their situation — they are an American family and their struggle is the American struggle. Even though I mentioned before that this is a Korean film, this story will hit home with any family who lives and works in the United States and any other country. In this way, and in almost every other way, Minari is an absolute triumph. Every minute that we are given to be a part of this family’s life is magnificent, and I don’t see anybody coming out of this movie without relating to some aspect of the family dynamics. Chung creates a universally potent story with his authentic story of a family attempting to survive in rural America, and crafts one of the best films of the year in the process.
Many people might be turned off by the simplicity of the plot, because Minari really is just the story of a Korean family surviving in rural Arkansas. This is no Parasite or any other movie with plot twist after plot twist. It is more of a “day-in-the-life” movie, where we see the trials and tribulations that plague this family’s daily work. While this may not sound interesting on paper, I can guarantee that anyone who watches this will find themselves engrossed. This family reminds me of my own family in multiple ways, and from talking to other people I can tell that Chung has written the characters in a way that anybody will be able to find themselves in. Watching Chung’s family is like watching one’s own loved ones go through the same situation, which makes every scene monumental. The film is also riddled with fantastic humor, mainly involving the relationship between the grandma (Yuh-Jung Youn) and the young son David (Alan S. Kim). Minari reflects family life perfectly — it is full of its fair share of trials and tribulations, but the light and the fun moments are eventually what becomes the most cherished memories.
Much of Minari wouldn’t work if the main cast didn’t have such vibrant personalities. Luckily, every performance is memorable and true to how each member of the family would act in reality. Two performances especially stood out to me: the first is Yuh-Jung Youn who plays the grandmother. She doesn’t play your typical grandma — she has a crude sense of humor, empathises with the kids more than the adults, and loves watching the television. Youn plays this magnificently and the natural charisma made her my favorite character in the film. Every scene with her was either hilarious, magnificent or deeply emotional and Youn plays it perfectly throughout. The other performance I absolutely adored was Will Patton as the odd and fanatical Christian neighbor. It’s hard to put my finger on why I loved this performance so much, but he is oddly endearing and genuine throughout, and I always felt his positivity through his actions. American awards ceremonies do not typically give “foreign” films acting nominations, but here both Youn and Patton shine more than enough for awards recognition.
In the end, what makes this film absolutely fantastic for me is the authenticity of every single shot. From the very beginning, it is clear that Chung put his heart and soul into this project, and it pays off big time with this deeply emotional and true-to-life narrative. He has much to say about the cultivation of family when trying to grow a farm and create a place of their own. As the farm and the Minari plants in the river grow and flourish, so does the family and their relationship with each other. Just like Minari plants, this relationship must be loved and cared for in order for it to bloom and thrive. The father’s caring of his farm is symbolically linked to the responsibility each member has to cherish the family and the inherent connection they all have moving forward in life. Chung holds family at the utmost importance in this narrative, and by the end it makes viewers want to call that long-lost relative they haven’t conversed with in years.
Another unique and splendid choice Chung makes is to not include any over-dramatic scenes of racism or bigotry. This is not to say that the movies with these heavily impactful scenes are bad or that overt racism does not exist — there is definitely danger out there and it must be portrayed. However, sometimes its use can diminish the dramatic realism of a movie such as this. I was waiting for the movie to end with a scene where they were all killed or beaten by racist townspeople, yet the film never resorts to that. This Korean-American family does not need oppression and violence to justify their existence in this country. The focus is on their lives and the way in which they work to succeed on their own terms. It is almost even more of a punch in the face to racism that there are no scenes like this, because it shows that a family with this demographic belongs in this landscape just as much as a typical WASP family. The only times racism is shown here it is subtle and understated, which is often more true to reality and debatably more consequential.
Minari is a wonderful experience. Some people will inevitably walk out saying “nothing happened,” yet by the end I found myself thinking that I could have watched 30 more minutes and still have been heavily invested. Chung packs an endless amount of meaning into this movie’s simplicity, and the movie benefits from this authentic approach. The film’s fantastic cinematography and Chung’s direction makes the viewer feel nostalgic for a time that they perhaps never even experienced. I felt like I was in this family for the duration of this movie, and because of this I laughed, cried and struggled with each member. Minari is one of those films that engrosses you during the runtime and makes you feel better because of watching it. I loved every second of this film and it is one of my highlights of 2020.
I give Minari an A+.