[Movie Review] Minari paints a moving, vivid portrait of rural Korean Americana
Inspired by writer-director Lee Isaac Chung’s own childhood, Minari is the portrait of a Korean American family struggling to succeed in rural Reagan-era Arkansas. Starring Steven Yeun and Han Ye-ri as Jacob and Monica, young Korean immigrants who have moved east from California to fulfill his dream of growing and selling Korean vegetables, the story is full of pathos, humor, and the quiet moments of life. Alan Kim is wonderful as their son David, small and weak but full of stubborn spirit—and a deep resentment of his grandmother Soon-ja (Yoon Yeo-jung), who has suddenly appeared in their lives and invaded his small bedroom.
As Jacob works himself ragged trying to make the farm yield a living for them, Monica tries to keep the family from falling apart, and David and his sister Anne (Noel Kate Cho) encounter the rural wildlife, human and otherwise, the film works its way under and inside your heart like something close and precious.
The story is at once incredibly specific and completely universal. It portrays three generations living in one house and learning to understand each other, with the wounds to show it; the deep, wearying weight of poverty and upheaval on even the most loving marriage; the moments where you’re too tired to even consider continuing on, but refuse to give up anyway. And the film does it all with a beautiful spareness—not a single frame is wasted, and every line of dialogue hits home. It’s truly a film to be experienced with the heart.
It’s no surprise that Steven Yeun, Han Ye-ri and Yoon Yeo-jung, giants all three, are the cornerstones of this film, but little Alan Kim was so natural and charming as the adorable anchor of this little family, who constantly watch and worry over him. Yeun’s performance as a hardworking, stubborn young dad who refuses to give in to defeat is incredibly moving and, as a second/third generation immigrant, honestly a little triggering. Jacob speaks volumes just with the posture of his silhouette in the fading light, as the sun sets over his fields.
Han Ye-ri, too, is her usual superlative self—she embodies Monica, holding her thin body steady against the constant blows of disappointment in her life. Holding her mother’s hand for the first time in years, unable to hold back tears. And of course, Yoon Yeo-jung just slays me with every project; why would this one be any different? I love Soon-ja’s rocky relationship with David, the two exchanging barbs and insults as they grow to understand each other.
I can’t let this review end without mentioning how funny this movie is. It doesn’t shy away from the difficulties this family faces, but alongside that is the absurd, the ridiculous, the joyful—all the little moments of humor that occur along with life. Lee Isaac Chung brings it all to the screen with a light touch and a lot of empathy, neither mocking any of the characters nor being too precious about them. The film aims to see clearly a slice of Korean American life that feels so real I can almost taste that Arkansas dirt, and feel the heat on my face.