Review: Minari (2020)

Director/Screenwriter: Lee Isaac Chung
Starring: Steven Yeun, Yeri Han, Alan S. Kim, Yuh-jung Youn, Noel Cho
Genre: Drama
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some thematic elements and a rude gesture
Release Dates: 2/12/21 (Theatres)
Runtime: 1h 55min
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 90%
Where to Watch: Rent/Buy
Oscar Nomination(s): Likely–Picture, Director, Actor (Yeun), Supporting Actress (Youn), Original Screenplay; Possible–Cinematography, Editing; Long-Shot–Actress (Yan), Supporting Actor (Kim), Original Song (“Rain Song”)

Who’d have thought that Minari, a film that centers on an Korean immigrant family that tries to start a farm in Arkansas during the 1980s, would end up being the quintessential American film? It represents the American dream in ways both subtle and overt, and it irks me to no end that it has received numerous foreign film nominations, simply because a great deal of the dialogue is in Korean. As evidenced by last year’s multiple-Oscar-winning Parasite, American audiences clearly have no problem with subtitles. Fortunately, the Oscars have recently changed the award title of Foreign Language Film to International Feature Film, which would immediately disqualify Minari for this category, as it’s an American-made film. 

I was fortunate enough to get to see Minari at my local independent theater, the second one I’d seen since December (the first being Promising Young Woman). It was so wonderful being back in a theater, albeit wearing a mask and social distancing, and I tried not to let the fact that there were two women who didn’t wear masks in the theater (even though it’s required). Fortunately, I was too swept away by writer-director Lee Isaac Chung’s beautiful film to be bothered by a couple of anti-mask idiots. Minari plays like a series of memories that are interconnected, and it’s clear that Chung’s own story played a major role in defining the characters and story. Like the family at its center, Chung is a first-generation Korean immigrant. So, too, is actor Steven Yeun (who moved to the U.S. as a child); best known as Glen (RIP) on The Walking Dead, Yeun here plays the patriarch of the family who is determined to start a highly profitable vegetable farm in Arkansas. 

It’s best to know as little as possible about the story, so as to be surprised when certain things — both good and bad — happen to the family. Everything that does happen to them feels organic and also moves the story forward, in a new direction. And, it’s never boring, and is sometimes laugh-out-loud hilarious, heartbreaking, and frustrating — like life. Chung’s direction is assured, and he seems to know not to over-direct his actors, all of whose performances are impressively authentic.

Yeun has been receiving the best reviews of his career, and seems poised to obtain an Oscar nomination for Best Actor (I hope!); his performance is probably the least showy in the whole cast, but it’s the subtle things he does that are so effective. Co-lead Yeri Han is just as good, if not even better, and her work has sadly been underappreciated. As matriarch Monica, she carries much of the emotional load, especially at the climax of the movie. If I had to choose one MVP among the cast, I’d say it’s Yuh-jun Youn as the hysterical and no-nonsense Korean grandma-who’s-not-really-a-grandma, whose appearance disrupts the family’s daily life, and who clashes (hilariously) with the young son, Alan S. Kim. Kim, who [rightly] won the Best Young Actor award from the Critics Choice Association, gives one of the best supporting performances of the year, regardless of age. It’s remarkable that he’s able to speak both Korean and English fluently, and he’s able to keep up with actors like Yeun and Youn (who’s like the Meryl Streep of Korean cinema). 

What’s also remarkable about the film is that it presents an immigrant family who, despite their struggles, deals with very little prejudice; many immigrant stories focus too much on prejudice and stereotypes, which are certainly common, but only represent a fragment of the immigrant experience. Also, this particular family has already spent a great deal of time in the U.S., having originally moved to California (where the son was born). They’ve already grown [fairly] accustomed to American culture, and there are some interesting clashes between the two cultures in regards to the children. We’re constantly rooting for this family, through all their [understandable] struggles and the joyful moments of their lives. Minari ends on a fairly hopeful, albeit not definitive ending; as much as I wanted to see more of the aftermath of a certain event, it’s more interesting to leave things up in the air.