Director: Lee Isaac Chung Starring: Steven Yeun, Han Ye-ri, Alan Kim, Noel Kate Cho, Youn Yuh-jung Run Time: 115 minutes
The story of the immigrant experience is one that is very familiar to Irish audiences, all of whom know someone who has taken up and gone away, or who they themselves have been and gone, maybe coming back, maybe not. It’s challenging enough even when, very often for our own diaspora, you’re arriving in a place where a large amount of people are still like you, culturally speaking. To move from Korean to the United States, as the central Yi family has done in the events preceding Minari, is a significant shift itself. But to move from the city, with young kids and a tense marriage, all to try to make it on temperamental Arkansas farmland is an even tricker business altogether.
One of the highlights of the 2021 Dublin International Film Festival, Minari has picked up steam as a critical and festival darling in contrast to the big, dramatic, ostentatious fare that usually packs the cinemas around now, all in search of that golden statuette. It’s an emotive and personal experience, rooted deeply in the ground, the better to reap richer rewards.
Minari is a semi-autobiographical story from director Lee Isaac Chung, a version of his own experiences being brought up in rural America in the 1980s. It comes primarily through the eyes of the family’s youngest, David, a sweet kid with a shy demeanour and a worrying heart condition. His father Jacob (Steven Yeun) has brought the family out to the sticks in the hopes of becoming a success by selling Korean crops to their fellow immigrants, but it’s a difficult road, not least because straining optimist Jacob argues constantly with skeptical wife Monica, played by Han Ye-Ri. Monica’s mother Soon-ja comes from home to live with the Yi’s, one of what feels like a constant string of ultimatums in the marriage between Monica and Jacob. As Jacob struggles to make something of himself, his son struggles to get his nana out of his hair, stuck sharing a room with her, spooked by her foul language, strange customs, lack of English and booming demeanour, David insists that she’s “not a real grandma”. Meanwhile daughter Anne Yi trucks on with heartbreaking kid resilience, the ultimate big sister quietly struggling to deal with a difficult family life.
Chung has cited author Willa Cather as inspiration from drawing back from his own upbringing, particularly Cather’s quote that “her life really began when she stopped admiring and started remembering”. The direction here is wonderfully evocative, vibrant colours and idyllic wide screen montages of happy farming, but it remains sober and unsentimental. The same wide shots that are so open and freeing out in the sunshine are a constraint inside the Yi’s mobile home, keeping the family in earshot of arguments, the screen taking up the majority of their home. Natural, immersive sound design creates the feeling of sense memory; the loud chirping of chicks at the Yi’s hatchery day job, the trickle of the stream by Soon-ja’s patch of minari, David’s own loud, unsettling heart beat, all feel like the kind of little things that stick you through a childhood, the bits that get folded into your parents fighting, people staring, your grandmother being a weird pain in the ass.
Though Minari benefits significantly from the leading man presence of Steven Yeun, and Jacob’s journey with Monica is well-felt, it’s the dynamic between young Alan Kim and veteran Korean performer Youn Yuh-jung and the relationship between grandson and grandmother that stirs the emotions most. Youn Yuh-jung perfectly presents the strange caring but aloof air of the grandmother, “not real” or otherwise, her gas, no bullshit line delivery bringing the viewer in endearingly, and slowly but surely building the viewer’s increasing dread that nothing bad must ever happen to this woman. Kim isn’t as polished or perfect as a lot of modern kid actors, which works in his favour, he acts like a kid, cute and charming and a little bit annoying. Where we see David’s dad through his eyes, Yeun’s performance is different, superhero strong or harsh and intimidating, depending on the moment. When it’s just adults on screen, Yeun sags. He’s pressured, stressed, tetchy, human in ways that we all are, but that a kid can’t pick up on as easily. Minari may not (thankfully) be an overly-conscious acting showcase, but it’s performers flow beautifully from the screen. Sometimes sweet, sometimes bluntly cold, Minari is a fully-rounded account of the family experience, universal, emotional and cathartic.(4 / 5)