Minari opens with beautiful rolling shots of the Arkansas countryside. As the Yi family pull up to their new home, we get our first look at the land where Jacob plans to start his farm. At first glance it isn’t very impressive – their house sits on wheels, the steps to the door missing – but the promise it holds seems evident. At least, it does to Jacob. Monica, his wife, doesn’t seem to think so. As their children play in the grass, the tension between the couple grows. This is not what she had imagined for their family.
Drawn from director Lee Isaac Chung’s own memories, the semi-biographical Minari is an intensely personal story. It sees the Yi family move from California to rural Arkansas so that Jacob, played by Steven Yeun, can fulfil his dream of having a farm. Soon after arriving, Monica’s mother Soonja, played by the wonderful Yuh-Jung Yoon, moves in with them too. The tension between the couple grows as the film progresses, their differing views on what’s best for the family pulling them apart.
From portraying The Walking Dead’s Glenn to being tipped as the first Asian American best actor Oscar nominee, this role is another on the upward trajectory of Steven Yeun’s career. His last four films have been nothing short of amazing. He’s not the only cast member with that Oscar’s buzz either – Yuh-Jung Yoon is one of the frontrunners for supporting actress.
Breakout stars Alan Kim, who plays son David Yi, and Noel Kate Cho, daughter Anne Yi, steal the show. Their performances are so sweet and they could not be more adorable (if we’re being honest, David’s wee cowboy boots are the real star).
In what little interaction we see the family have with their community there are moments tinged with the ignorance of small-town America – a boy asks David why his face is so flat, while a young girl starts speaking racist gibberish in an attempt to speak Korean to Anne. They aren’t malicious attacks but instead a symptom of a lack of exposure to diversity, much more common in the 80s setting but unfortunately still present today.
Minari draws you in with the little details – the beat of David’s heart murmur, the failed kiss of a once-great romance, the tears shed over gochugaru (Korean chilli powder) and the longing for home. It is filled with these small moments, granular details representing a memory translated to the screen; so easily missed but no less important than any other element.
Chung’s attention to detail doesn’t stop there. It can be seen in the way the camera focuses on a face and in the music that plays over a particular moment. Every frame is constructed perfectly, capturing the tenderness and frustration of the Yi family’s story. His skill as a director and care for the story is clear in everything that we see.
For a film primarily spoken in Korean, Minari couldn’t be more American. The story of an immigrant family trying to make a better life for themselves is one that plays out every day across the country. You don’t have to be Korean to understand this story, you don’t even have to be an immigrant, because it is innately relatable.
This is as good as cinema gets.
Minari is opening the Glasgow Film Festival on the 24th of February, get tickets here. It will be released in the UK on March 19th 2021.
Featured image credit: A24