As the Yi family tentatively approach their new home in Arkansas (a mobile home on land that drove the last owner to suicide), we see the luscious green Arkansas countryside through the wide-eyed optimism of young David Yi. This is a land of plentiful opportunity where hard work is all you need to be successful – or so that’s what they say.
Minari is an undeniably beautiful film, in every sense of the word. Lachlan Milne’s stunning cinematography brings the Yi family’s new surroundings to life, while Emile Mosseri’s score reflects both the film’s simple elegance and its cautious optimism. But where the film truly shines is Lee Isaac Chung’s marvelous screenplay, and the fantastic characters that permeate his film. Steven Yeun is brilliantly endearing and stoic in the face of hardship in his role as Jacob Yi, the family patriarch whose big dreams of running a successful farm (and his stubborn determination to make it so) put him at odds with his wife Monica, played by Han Ye-ri, who is unimpressed by their new home from the start. This tension drives the bulk of the drama as Monica’s doubts about her family’s wellbeing – and Jacob’s devotion to them – continue to grow. Their daughter Anne is a harmonious, if under-utilised, presence, with most of the attention afforded to Alan Kim’s David, based on Lee Isaac Chung’s childhood self (he actually moved to a small farm in Arkansas as a boy). But the star of Minari is Youn Yuh-jung, whose role as Monica’s mother is at the heart of the film. An outlandish character who swears and drinks Mountain Dew (much to David’s chagrin, claiming she’s not a real grandma), Youn’s performance offers laughs aplenty, mainly from her interactions with young David, as well as pathos to boot. It is the closeness the audience feels to these characters, a testament to their well-roundedness, that makes them so watchable. I rejoiced at their highs and mourned their lows, demonstrating the success with which Chung hits each story beat. It’s one of those films where everything comes together, and the result is a remarkable triumph.
There has been controversy surrounding the film’s placement in the foreign film category at some awards shows, and this outrage is absolutely warranted. This film is a wholly American experience, that highlights the power and allure of the American Dream and the oftentimes folly in trying to realise that dream. Despite being about a Korean family, this is a story of unabashed Americanness, an inherently apolitical film that isn’t about race or immigrants but rather a unromantic but nonetheless life-affirming tale of one family trying to make it in America. It’s a warm hug of a film that pulls you in with its simple, yet charmingly realistic, depiction of family life, and holds you there for the duration. By the end, I’m not sure I was quite ready to let go.
This review was written by Oli Gamble, member of the thatfilmbloguk team, American and Canadian Studies student, and co-host of the thatfilmbloguk podcast.