REEL Review – Minari (2020)

Director: Lee Isaac Chung | 1h 55mins | Drama | Languages: English, Korean

In the 1980’s, a young Korean family decide to move their life in California in order to start a farm in rural Arkansas.

The ‘American Dream’ has been played out all over cinematic history, it’s platform to attack the beaming facade of a ‘prosperous’ land is usually matched with a commentary on class struggle – best examples include Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men. The thing about this popular tale is that it can be told in many ways, through many people. Lee Isaac Chung’s semi-autobiographical drama uses the themes of American prosperity in it’s story about a Korean family that moves to Arkansas, but what sets Minari a part is it’s undeniably personal touch. 

Like every young family the Yi’s, lead by Jacob (Steven Yeun) and his wife Monica (Yeri Han), are going through a transitional period. After making comfortable money with little space in California, Jacob wants to be able to freely provide for his family living off their own land. We see this air of opportunity for them in the early scenes as the family seemingly glides through a gorgeous backdrop of the Arkansas greenery, but Isaac Lee Chung keeps everything human – even in it’s most Malickian moments there’s a genuine deep-dive in the character’s feelings, something that’s kept up continuously. 

While the film is challenging the ‘American Dream’ it’s most touching and heart-wrenching moments come because of the family chasing it. Jacob is a driven man in search of comfort and independence but his wife, Monica, is fearful of this step they’re taking and it eventually takes its toll on the family. Add to that two children, Anne and David (who is presumably based on the director), and Monica’s Mother who eventually succumbs to a stroke, there is a plethora of family dynamics that are balanced to perfection. 

Chung’s direction is wonderfully poetic, but the punch that the film packs is created through an ensemble performance that is pitch-perfect.

David’s beautiful relationship with his Grandma is gorgeously written and despite the crushing conclusion to it, it’s part of the reason the film can be so joyous. But the standout arc is that of Jacob and Monica, which is made all the more impressive because of the semi-autobiographical story that Chung is telling us. There’s no proof that the relationship between the two main characters is the same as the Directors parents, but if it is, it’s a beautiful example of how mature the film is on all levels. Teaching us that – despite parents being the all-knowing role models in a child’s life – adults have every right to be fractured and often clueless, as long as they persevere. 

Chung’s direction is wonderfully poetic, but the punch that the film packs is created through an ensemble performance that is pitch-perfect. Steven Yeun is impeccably subdued as he carries the weight of his family’s future on his shoulders and Yeri Han shows fragility and strength in equal measure. Youn Yuh-jung is a delight and the children played by Alan Kim and Noel Cho are some of the best child performances you’ll have ever seen – but more importantly together they create a representation of the ‘American Dream’ that has a personal focus on the story of immigrants trying to make a life for themselves. 

When films overuse themes it becomes exhausting, it’s something that plagues a lot of contemporary cinema. But when the themes of a film are so genuine and personal, it’s hard not to appreciate the honesty oozing from it. Chung has taken his life and patiently waited to tell his story – one that is so impeccably human it has something for everyone to grasp onto.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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