Minari Writer and Director Lee Isaac Chung invites viewers into the heart-warming, and intimate story of Jacob and his family as they set-out to live the American Dream in rural Arkansas. The life of a Korean immigrant is put on display as viewers meet the cultural divide, language divide and prosperity divide which stands between everyday immigrants and the future they dreamed for themselves. More importantly though, they come into contact with full, lovable and realistic portraits of human beings, which the audience can empathize with in both devastating and uplifting ways.
The first thing that must be said about this film is that Chung’s script is immaculate. It’s cleverly written, with clear arcs for both the family as a whole and individual characters. Each is fleshed out in humane ways which give them life, and each is dressed with interesting character and story elements which add complexity to their lives. For example, Jacob and Monica’s son David has a heart murmur, which is used with astounding effect to garner empathy for him and this incredible new life he’s living. The real achievement of the script though is that each of these arcs and elements build into a violently emotional crescendo, which touches viewers in a way that most films can’t.
It’s thus that the characters are the most engaging element of the film. Actors Steven Yeun, Youn Yuh-Jung and Alan Kim all bring heavyweight performances which establish a credible nuance in the film’s world. It can’t be overstated though how loveable these characters are. Specifically Alan Kim’s David and Youn Yuh-Jung’s Soonja who build a charming report, will have the audience frequently laughing, and silently becoming attached to the two. It’s here too where surprisingly the film’s themes take the most resonance, as a child born in America comes to know and love his Korean grandmother, and by proxy his Korean heritage.
In contrast Steven Yeun’s Jacob finds himself in a dilemma, which, while driven by his status as Korean Immigrant, is distinctly about the American Dream. More importantly it acts as a rumination on how shame is inherently attached to the American Dream, and how when unmasked, it’s just the pursuit of success at any means. Consistently when confronted with his own mortality, and his family’s mortality, Jacob shrinks away from the light. It’s a subtle emotion to depict, but at every turn Yeun leverages his body, posture and eyes to deliver on the quiet solitude and helplessness of a man bound to success.
This is the driving force behind the very honest issues that Jacob and Yeri Han’s Monica are having. It’s a debate one would assume happens between all types of families across America, whether the risks one is taking for a better life will be worth it in the end. Here that risk is made readily apparent by the infirmities of both David and the elderly Soonja. This also drives the conversation behind what our accomplishments are really worth as people, and whether financial value is the end goal. It’s a simple, and timeless question but one which feels fresh and relevant in the way it’s presented here.
Outside of the narrative, the film makes several interesting stylistic choices in order to portray the immigrant experience. First and foremost the film is roughly evenly split between English and Korean, so that the audience can never get a full footing in one or the other.
Secondly the film introduces Will Patton’s Paul, an extremist southern Christian who speaks in tongues. It’s a choice made to evoke the strangeness of cultures not our own, but it also works wonderfully as a contrast to what David sees as the strangeness of his grandmother’s Korean culture.
Then lastly, the film has Soonja decide to plant Minari early on, a Korean plant which survives most anywhere, spreads easily and adapts to many different cultures. It’s a thinly veiled allegory for Jacob’s family, and one which rears its head in several thematic moments to make a point about the immigrant experience in America.
Minari is a film which captures your heart for a moment and your mind for much longer. Its incredible script is brought to life by soulful performances and an all around earnestness. Viewers will find themselves deeply impacted by the film, and satisfied with the way they chose to spend their time.
As a bit of an aside, Minari also makes a great companion to Steven Yeun’s last theatrical release Burning. The two are juxtaposed tales of a Korean Immigrant in Arkansas and an Americanized Korean student which deeply define the contrast in the two’s culture. Viewers might also recognize elements of the conclusion of Minari as reminiscent of Burning, and its most prevalent themes. It’s really interesting to consider as Yeun builds his filmography, now as an Academy Award nominated actor.
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