Films that are big hits at the Sundance Film Festival rarely resonate with me when I finally get to see them, in the same way they did with the premiere audience in Utah. And normally, I’m hearing about these Sundance titles for months before I finally get to see them, and a somewhat unreasonable level of hype has been built into my head, skewing what my expectations should be, and setting me up for something utterly world-changing and life-altering. I would just like to preface what happens with Sundance Great Expectations Syndrome before I start talking about Lee Isaac Chung’s new film, Minari, which I’ve finally gotten around to seeing a full year after first hearing about it.
Minari is the story of a Korean family that comes to America in the 1980s, after a stint in California, to rural Arkansas where patriarch Jacob (Steven Yeun) intends to start growing Korean vegetables, seeing an untapped market, and his wife Monica (Han Ye-ri) still isn’t quite sold on the idea of moving to the United States in the first place. They have a young son David (Alan Kim) and older daughter Anne (Noel Kate Cho) who are struggling to find their place in their new surroundings. Eventually, Monica’s mother Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung) comes to live with them, and she becomes an unlikely mentor to David, and helps everyone in the family, in some way.
In a different genre, in different hands, Minari could be silly or insincere or deeply tragic. If this didn’t steadfastly avoid genre extremes, I feel like this could have been a very different movie. This could have gone for big comedy, with the wacky grandmother coming to town with her big opinions, or it could have gone for some kind of tragedy, which is hinted at, but never fully explored. Instead, Minari is a warm, gentle slice-of-life movie, not so much about the concept of the immigrant experience and the American dream, but more about what it means to adapt to something new in life, and start something new from scratch, regardless of where you come from or what your situation in life is. It’s a lovely, empathetic, nuanced drama that definitely has a lot to appreciate.
The performances are also quite good, especially Youn Yuh-jung as the grandmother, Soon-ja. This could have been a really showy, stereotypical character, the sassy grandma who comes in midway through the movie and shakes things up, but Yuh-jung seems to be consciously avoiding this, and she delivers a deeply memorable performance. Han Ye-ri as matriarch Monica is also insanely good. Monica loves her family, but is kind of disgusted with the way her life has turned out, and seems to have left behind a lot for a life she doesn’t know if she wants. And Ye-ri conveys this in quiet, elegant ways that pack a punch.
Child actor Alan Kim is a real find. Minari is a semi-autobiographical film, and the character of David is kind of the stand-in for filmmaker Lee Isaac Chung. And it’s a pleasure to follow David’s emotional journey at this very moment in his childhood, and that’s all because of Kim’s performance. Between this and Burning, Steven Yeun is absolutely an exciting actor to watch, he’s a family man with lots of pride but also seems kind of aloof and driven by his own dreams, and it’s always a question whether or not he’s making the right choices for his family.
It’s definitely interesting to wonder how much of Jacob is based on how Chung remembers his own parents, because these are both deeply flawed characters, and yet the film never takes anyone’s side, and the script shows both members of this shattering marriage as equals. Equally trying to raise their children with a sense of pride and respect, equally trying to do the right thing, but equally falling apart under the surface. It ultimately feels like a love letter to Chung’s own family, and somehow to every family – people who are just trying to make their lives the best they can be.
So, Minari is a quiet and poignant film full of stellar performances, lovely cinematography, a fantastic score, and a very well-written screenplay. So, why did it kind of leave me a little cold ultimately? I totally blame Sundance, and the people who raved about it for a full calendar year. Ultimately, there’s a lot I love about Minari, but it didn’t blow me away emotionally in the way I was expecting. I was upset I couldn’t see it before finishing my best of the year list for 2020, but unfortunately it wouldn’t have made that list anyway. There’s so much here that’s undeniably impressive and in the end it is quite moving, so it’s hard to dock Minari too many points. In the end, I would say Minari is a quiet, sentimental and ultimately quite moving film about a very specific American experience, and yet it could not be more universal as a portrait of an American family.