Director: Lee Isaac Chung
Screenwriter: Lee Isaac Chung
Starring: Steven Yeun, Yeri Han, Alan Kim, Noel Cate Cho, Youn Yuh-jung, Will Patton
A24 has achieved unparalleled success over the past few years through distributing a consistent slew of home runs. By backing cinema’s indie darlings and supporting fresh filmmakers’ long-time passion projects, the company has become one of the most exciting platforms for modern cinema. A24’s impressive roster includes the likes of Greta Gerwig, Josh and Benny Safdie, Barry Jenkins, Robert Eggers, Rose Glass and Ari Aster, who have each gleaned unparalleled popularity, success and awards attention with their impressive contributions to cinema. Of course, the company is always on the lookout for their next big-hitter, and their latest champ has arrived in the form of Lee Isaac Chung with his semi-autobiographical Sundance home run, Minari.
Minari is the tender, softly spoken tale of a traditional immigrant family attempting to navigate the sparingly populated, vast landscape of unpredictability and mild-threat on offer in the American South. The family, headed by Jacob (Steven Yeun) and Monica (Yeri Han), are already versed in Americana, having worked as chicken sexers in California following their move from South Korea in the 1980s. However, a law onto its own, Arkansas, the family’s new home, isn’t the America they have become accustomed to. Dubious of their new static home, situated on an empty 50-acre farming plot, Monica and her children, David (Alan Kim) and Anne (Noel Cate Cho), express doubts about their move. However, Jacob, ensnared by a typical case of ‘The American Dream’, is sure his plan to become an entrepreneurial farmer will deliver his family untold prosperity. 30,000 Koreans arrive in the US every year, he tells his wife with conviction, and he plans on being the one to supply them with the forgotten tastes of home.
With his fifth feature, Lee Isaac Chung draws from his own childhood memories of growing up on a rural, dust-bowl farm. This semi-autobiographical tale of a Korean family attempting to assimilate into American culture serves as the film’s focal point. However, Chung weaves a broader picture of desired individualism into each frame. Throughout his narrative, the two forces battle against each other, creating an undercurrent of minimalist, acutely controlled, yet wildly engaging tension. Jacob sets his sites on working the land and growing Korean vegetables, which he believes is a profitable market. He embraces his new role knowingly, adopting a Southerner’s gait, dress sense and work ethic while sinking all of the family’s money into what can only be a sure thing. Monica is less sure of her new home, acting as the opposing force against her husband’s attempts to make something unique for himself, preferring the idea of continuing as chicken sexers, joining a church, blending in and playing it safe. David’s precarious heart condition and Anne’s restlessness only work to exacerbate their parent’s labyrinth of conflict.
The film often lulls, telling its tale just a touch too lightly and relying too heavily on lingering, Terrence Malick-style illustrations of the harmony between man and the natural world. While Lachlan Milne’s beautifully textured cinematography gifts the film a rich and lived-in aura, there’s only so much time and energy one can spend admiring green farmland and wide, glistening blue skies; the film would feel meandering if it wasn’t for a fertile depth of detail laboriously crafted into each scene. Audiences might feel used to the ‘assimilating immigrant’ genre, recognising the well-worn story beats of similar movies past, yet Minari works to feel fresh, peppering in humanistic scenes of a distinctive nature, seen best when David and Anne create paper planes with scribbled messages hidden in their wings (which they fly into the middle of their parents’ blazing arguments, asking them not to fight), or in the wry look of suspicion Jacob gives David when a Southern farmer attempts to find water on their farm using nothing but a stick.
There’s a note of authenticity to all of Chung’s characterisation work: interactions with the small-town locals are the most enlightening moments, illuminating that causal nature in which Americans observe the family’s otherness. However, these moments are not overtly stereotypical or structured to give us a straightforward reading. Every character is layered, flawed and ingrained into the social structure of the South – ‘Why is your face flat?’ a local boy asks David ignorantly, before eagerly seeking his company and friendship. The most animated supporting character turns up in the form of Monica’s mother, Soonja (Youn Yuh-jung), who arrives fresh from a long-haul flight from Korea to have a go at being a Grandmother. However, Soonja, a gambler with a foul-mouth, doesn’t know how to bake cookies or do any other traditional Granny activities and soon becomes a source of annoyance for David and Anne – they spend more time looking after her than she does them. Yet, watching the kids attempt to forge a relationship with their Grandmother and the parts of their culture she shows them, although often softly hysterical, make for heart-warming, beautifully sentimental viewing.
Steven Yeun (who shot to fame as the reliable, quick-witted Glenn on AMC’s undead smash hit, ‘The Walking Dead’) acts as the film’s core. He gives a sincere and subdued performance, mirroring the movie’s flow by revealing his character through studied, intricately composed actions and body language. Despite his young age, Alan Kim makes for a worthy screen-partner; a bold combination of well-executed character delivery and effortlessly magnetic charisma marks him out as a natural scene-stealer. Kim works best when pitted against Yuh-jung: his ‘wise before his time’ mischievous old headedness ricochets against her stubborn, childish, ‘set in her ways’ charm. There’s also an incredible turn from Will Patton, who plays Paul, a god-fearing, Bible-quoting town crazy who turns out to be a pretty good guy for someone prone to speaking in tongues.
Minari treads a unique path over well-worn ground, managing to be both quietly poignant and thunderously profound. It’s a tale we know well, speaking to America’s immigrant experience and the promise the enchanting country holds, yet Lee Isaac Chung’s intrinsic vision makes this a story like no other. Chock full of symbolic behaviours and gentle gestures, Minari settles in close to home, exploring the parameters of what ‘family’ really means.