Lee Isaac Chung’s directorial debut film Minari is getting buzz in multiple categories at the Academy Awards this year, and upon first watch, it’s easy to see why it’s worthy of all the accolades it’s sure to receive. The film dedicates itself to depicting both an Asian-American experience and the trials of life on farmland in the deep South through an authentic, heartfelt script, grounded, realistic performances from its ensemble cast, and a feel that’s as gorgeous aurally as it is visually.
There are trials and tribulations abound for an Asian-American family upon their move from the West Coast to the Deep South in A24’s latest family drama.
Between artsy horror films like The Witch and Hereditary, and authentic portrayals of life in different subcultures such as The Last Black Man in San Francisco, there seems to be no niche or genre in which A24 doesn’t dabble. They found recent success both critically and financially within the family drama subgenre as well in 2019, when they revealed an Asian family connected by its disconnection in The Farewell, and also told Trey Edward Shults’s latest drama, which followed an African-American family in Waves.
The former’s intimacy and the latter’s emotional punch make their presence in A24’s latest family drama Minari from Lee Isaac Chung in his directorial debut. The film had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January this year, where it won the US. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award, and it deserved those awards and will earn everything it receives come Oscar season for its realistic writing, phenomenal character dynamics, nuanced performances, wondrous score, and its thoughtful message about the importance of family and never forgetting one’s homeland.
Taking place in the 1980s, Minari is told from the perspective of David Yi (Alan Kim), a young boy moving with his father Jacob (Steven Yeun), mother Monica (Yeri Han), and sister Anne (Noel Cho) from California to rural Arkansas, where Jacob has ambitions of raising his family on a farm he promises will be “as big as Eden”. When he’s not tilling soil and tending to his garden with the help of his fellow farmhand Paul (Will Patton), he and Monica are making a living by sexing baby chicks, while thanks to a heart defect, David is under the watchful eyes of Anne and grandmother Soonja (Yuh-jung Youn) as he explores the land around him, getting sucked into the ideal tropes of American life with every new person he meets and every place he goes.
The strongest aspects of Minari come in the script and direction. Based on his own upbringing, Chung tells his story with a directorial flair that’s revealing in its intimacy and explores the dynamics between each family member in beautiful fashion, such as a moment where Monica washes Jacob’s hair when his arms are too weak after a day of laborious farming. The super wide shot of them through a doorway not only puts the viewer in David’s shoes as he tries to understand his parents’ struggles, but also provides a window into what his mother and father bring to their relationship.
Jacob wants to live the American Dream that Monica doesn’t fully understand, but she wants to without forgetting the customs of their Korean homeland. The struggles of each family member’s adjustments to country life and the lessons they learn along the way are also portrayed in a method that evokes nostalgia and feels heartfelt in its grand simplicity, such as in vignette-esque scenes of Anne trying to get used to farmland chores like burning trash, Soonja encouraging David that he is stronger than his condition allows him to be, and Jacob teaching David how Koreans use their minds by building a well in a nearby forest to get water free from the land.
The film’s grand simplicity also manifests itself in the cinematography, which captures the gorgeous green pastures of the Yi family farm in wide, vast landscapes, as Emile Mosseri’s score based in piano and Asian instruments complements David’s wonder and and curiosity about his new home, as well as Jacob’s grand hopes and ambitions of having a giant farm.
There’s often an unspoken truth that pressure for success is prevalent throughout Asian families, and Steven Yeun wears that longing for prosperity in the eyes of his household through his nuanced lead performance that’s powerful in the film’s most quiet moments, like when he looks out at the horizon behind him in despair when his well is dry. Meanwhile, in what should be a breakthrough performance, Alan Kim steals the show as David, conveying his childhood excitement about having a new world to explore, while also displaying a self-awareness about his heart condition and vulnerability with brilliant restraint for such a young actor.
Minari even asks the viewer to sympathize with the characters the Yi family meet along the way; such as when the kids sans David on his church bus make fun of Paul as it passes him carrying a large cross down a dirt road in devotion to his religion. This endears us to Paul after his first few appearances in the film came off a little cartoonish at times. It’s also worth noting that the film doesn’t touch on racial tensions that are sure to exist in the Southern region of the nation at that moment in time enough.
But Minari has the best intentions in omitting that; rather than show the dark side of the deep South, the film elects to depict all of the good; gorgeous farmland, friendly southern hospitality, and the powerful bonds of family. It’s a simple story but the stakes couldn’t be higher as every scene is through the eyes of the Yi family, and viewers will feel their longing for a place where they can all be happy, be endeared to them the second they arrive in Arkansas, and want to see Jacob and Monica work through their marital issues, as well as see David bond with his grandmother. Audiences will also find themselves thinking about their own families and the lessons they were taught in their upbringings. In that, there’s something for everyone to latch onto, and that’s why Minari is a film that’s worth your time and attention this awards season.
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