Review: Minari

There’s a gentleness that’s been missing from American films of late – the widespread desire to be innovative and audacious has left little room for the modest adult dramas that once permeated theatres. Lee Isaac Chung is the latest director to replicate this style of film-making, and his efforts are to be greatly admired.

A Korean-American family has just moved from California to the rurality of Arkansas for a fresh start. Now living in a trailer-house on sprawling acreage, patriarch Jacob Yi (Steven Yeun) has plans for a farm growing Korean vegetables, and a willing hand in neighbour Paul (Will Patton); but with Jacob’s finances running low, wife Monica (Han Ye-ri) feeling homesick and young son David (Alan Kim) struggling with a chronic heart condition, tensions are growing in the Yi household.

The release of Minari comes amidst a surging interest in Asian cinema, driven mostly by the triumph of Parasite at the Academy Awards twelve months ago, and partly Lulu Wang’s cross-cultural feature The Farewell. The similarities between Wang’s film and Chung’s are plain to see, with some traits more glaring than most – both have PG ratings, and screenplays that focus on Asian-American protagonists. Arguably though, the most obvious parallel is the soothing tone, which does have its detriments but still ought to be celebrated.

Minari is a drama that appears mundane upon initial viewing, yet becomes more appealing as it progresses. For instance, the arrival of Monica’s mother, Soon-ja (Youn Yah-jang) in the second act brings with it a noticeable shift in energy, with proceedings becoming more amusing; as the climax is reached in the third act, that energy changes again, with the tension increased, emotions heightened, and elation swiftly giving way to sorrow. In that sense, Minari is an experience that very much rewards the viewer’s patience.

Soon-ja (Youn Yah-Jang) aka Grandma, in Minari

Not only is the screenplay fluid and emotionally fraught, it’s also very allegorical. Casual observers will note that Minari serves as a commentary on the American Dream, and reflects the universal experience on migrants; but so much more is left open to interpretation, leaving audiences to form their own judgement – this feeling extends to the film’s title, which refers to the edible plants that grow ubiquitously in Asia. Indeed, Minari may well be studied by film scholars and students for decades to come.

What’s even more impressive is how beautifully Minari tells its story. As stated above, the tone is one of calmness and grace, with limited swearing and the barest hint of mature themes ensuring that viewers of all ages can access the picture; what’s more, despite the slow and rather meandering start, there’s never a dull moment, with events being engaging through until the poetic, moving conclusion – possibly the best of the past year.

The intelligent screenplay is of course complemented by the remarkable performances, especially Youn’s – as stated above, her turn is an energetic one with a genuine, grandmotherly warmth that fuels much of Minari’s charms; in the third act though, she becomes better again by offering a pained, fragile performance that’s convincing and heart-breaking. Similar praise can be offered to both Yeun and Han, who are great throughout yet reserve their full talents until that same final act.

Gracious, pleasant and poignant, Minari transfixes with its clever screenplay and powerful acting. Although lethargic in parts, Lee Isaac Chung’s picture is nonetheless a compelling one that highlights the dreams and hardships of migrants the world over.

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