The new film from writer/director Lee Isaac Chung is a poetic tale of perseverance and pride as a South Korean family attempts to survive and thrive in the American South.
A loosely autobiographical take on Chung’s upbringing, the film follows Jacob (Steven Yeun) and Monica Yi (Han Ye-ri) as they move with their children Anna (Noel Kate Cho) and David (Alan Kim) to rural Arkansas so Jacob can financially support them better by growing a vegetable garden to sell produce to local businesses.
As Jacob struggles to provide more than the sub-standard living they’re used to and is desperate to see his farm succeed, Monica is equally frustrated he’s so hellbent on succeeding that he doesn’t notice their family issues. Anna and David become aware of their parents fighting and worry if things are reaching a breaking point. While David not only deals with a heart condition that worries his parents, he also struggles to make a connection with his grandmother Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung) as he believes that she is the centre of his parents’ fighting. The relationships within the Yi family are incredibly well fleshed out and you really get a sense of why this big move is so important to them and their future together.
Then there are culture clashes that come into play which make the issues within the family much more complex. David doesn’t see his grandmother as the traditional American grandma that bakes cookies and pinches cheeks, Jacob ignores the advice of standard American farming practices to maintain a Korean style, and Soon-ja criticises how Jacob and Monica have “lost” some of their Korean culture being in America. The juxtaposition of the Yi family in an American church service emphasises how they stick out and is a perfect visual for their fish out of water scenario. All of this conflict makes the Yi family’s story of trying to achieve the “American Dream” as foreigners so compelling and beautiful to watch.
Even with all the strife and issues that plague the family and break them down at times, there’s still something magical about seeing Jacob’s farm grow through the pure intention of making a good life for his family. Maybe its Will Patton’s eccentric yet strangely harmonious supporting performance that makes you believe good things could be coming for the Yi family, the stunning cinematography from Lachlan Milne that makes their farm feel small but wholesome and meaningful, or the score from Emile Mosseri that makes their growing farm seem divine. Regardless, Chung brings all these great elements together to create a sentimental story about a family that are conflicted, but still deeply care for each other at the end of the day.
This film would be nothing without its amazing performances, led by Yuen delivering one of his best. Aside from Andrew Lincoln and Norman Reedus, Yuen was the heart of TV show The Walking Dead and anyone who saw him there knew he had a big career ahead of him. His performance here is an evolution of that same acting prowess. He really exudes the determination Jacob has in wishing his children to see him as successful and even when his pride gets in the way and overtakes his love for his family, he still makes his actions seem admirable because they come from a desire for stability and success. The entire family is great with Ye-ri and Kim also sure-fire standouts, but they all exude a collective exhaustion and growing sadness around their situation that makes you really care about them. The performances and powerful emotions really come together in the film’s well-built finale that embodies the true meaning of home and family.
Minari is an incredibly well-crafted and unique tale of familial perseverance and achieving a homestead that latches on your heart through Chung’s personal touches and some incredible performances.
Minari is available to stream on Amazon Prime in the US and due for UK release on April 2nd.