As black smoke billows out of a factory chimney into the sky, David (Alan S. Kim) curiously asks his father about its cause. His father Jacob (played by the excellent Steven Yeun) finishes his cigarette whilst on his shift break. He explains the nature of chicken sexing – the process where male and female chicks are separated. The females are kept for their reproduction whilst the males are discarded.
In Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari, the grim prelude is somewhat poetic in its significance and analogy. The idea of your life trapped within the confines of a processing factory; your fate decided and controlled by the Gods and plucked out of obscurity to only fulfil a specific purpose. The freedom we yearn for, monotonously shaped into formulaic repetition and obedient structure. The beauty and essence of Minari can be described as rebellious, breaking the mould to escape the ‘chicken coup’ of life for something adventurous and life-affirming. And the experience can either make you or break you.
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It comes as no surprise that A24 have perfected the art of acquiring films based on personable, moving stories that encapsulate the human spirit. Here, in their latest acquisition, it’s the story of a Korean-American family who moves to a rural farm to start a new life in 80s Arkansas.
What’s prevalent about Chung’s direction is its poignant intimacy. It’s one of those rare occasions within film where its story appears simple enough on the surface, but there’s so much residing within its nuanced layers. The story (based on his own experiences) captures the same, resonating connection felt in Yasujirô Ozu’s Tokyo Story. And besides the commonality of the family dynamic placed under the microscope of various, generational culture clashes, patience is its ultimate and celebrated weapon (which is a difficult skill to master). Like Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, Minari sits on the same plane as the modern-day equivalents, weaving an emotional tale that is both familiar and existential. And Minari signifies its journey by capturing the American Dream through Korean eyes, and it is beautiful, absorbing and genuinely heartfelt.
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There’s an element of hope through hardship that symbolises the pursuit of the ‘American Dream’. A lot can be said about that – the blind optimism that unifies people under the same belief system of opportunity and self-made accomplishment and achievement. In many respects, Minari can be thought of as a film about faith; faith in ourselves that can uproot an entire family, the faith we place in our relationships and the faith that’s in desperate need of repair. Even faith is a literal comparison when you take into account the eccentricity of Will Patton’s Paul – a Korean War Vet turned vessel for God’s love and prayer (he even walks around shouldering a cross every Sunday). Chung doesn’t shy away from the pitfalls (especially the harrowing story of the farm’s previous occupant). But Minari occasionally takes on a dreamlike quality, thanks to Lachlan Milne’s cinematography and Emile Mosseri’s score. That visual distinction is noticeable whenever Jacob is working on the farm – a contrast to the desaturated look and framed shots of the family home.
At its core, Chung doesn’t present the perfect relationship. In Jacob and Monica (Yeri Han), they undergo a litmus test on whether their love can survive the magnitude of those changes. There’s always a quiet storm brewing – literally (a tornado specifically in one scene), always on the cusp of falling apart when the boilerplate pressure becomes too much.
But there’s something equally admirable yet heartbreaking about Jacob’s personality. He is incredibly headstrong and self-determined to make the life of independence work for him and his family. You root for his success – I mean, how can you not? Taking risks is a psychological gamble that not everyone is prepared to do. But often, his desperate actions places the family at odds with each other, where the crops become more important than the welfare of the family he’s co-raising. What’s beautifully achieved in Yeun’s performance is those solemn, reflective moments where he’s alone, smoking, isolated from the world, almost yearning not to feel disconnected. With the entire weight on his shoulders, it’s the fear that if this dream project fails, it will tear his family apart. Even when Grandma (played by Yuh-jung Youn) comes along to stay, it’s a quick fix, not a permanent solution.
It works beautifully in tandem with Yeri Han’s performance as Monica. The quiet, struggling burden is instantly telling where the emotions are etched on her face. It becomes an internal battle to do what’s right for the family, especially when the change of lifestyle doesn’t meet expectations. She’s the opposite of Jacob’s tunnel-vision obsession. But the empathy felt for Monica is how she rationalises and reconciles with the bigger picture. And the subtleness in her performance really shines through.
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The cleverness in Chung’s script and direction is how playful it is. An immigrant story based in rural America would have triggered a fearful mindset of expected and open hostility. When the Yi family go to their local church, the awkwardness permeates through impolite stares and conversations. But credit to Chung, he finds a subversion to the assimilation, one that draws upon a community aspect, however imperfect it is.
What elevates Minari above everything else is the warmth and charm it radiates, especially the performances of Alan S. Kim and Yuh-jung Youn. It’s the generational mischief they get up to that steals the show, throwing curveball antics into the mix of the drama. It’s hard not to fall in love with Youn’s performance as the wrestling-loving, card playing, unconventional Grandma. And it’s not just because of those qualities but in how she sees life with a carefree honesty and wisdom that is a symbolism of growth, just like the minari seeds she plants.
And in exploring that multi-generational family dynamic, it suddenly dawns on you where Minari’s strengths lie as a film. It’s able to draw parallels that feel wholly organic. If you’re a child of immigrants (like myself), it’s how much our parents sacrificed or endured to make things possible. Like David and his sister Anne (Noel Cho), it’s about finding your identity when you exist between two worlds of cultures. Or knowing that grandmother figure in our lives who sees life in a different way that always feels like a slice of ‘home’. Minari is very sentimental in that way. The kind where it takes on a different context, especially when people have been separated away from family and friends for long periods due to the pandemic. Chung’s nostalgia might be intrinsically Korean, but its universal approach transcends any barrier.
It’s much more hopeful than anticipated – the resilience, the re-evaluating of expectations and fighting through the storms that life throws at us. And what Chung demonstrates is resoundingly human, that even the best of us will undoubtedly succumb to its lingering quality.
Minari is playing at the Glasgow Film Festival until the 27th February, and will be released On Demand and in Virtual Cinemas from 2nd April, and Drive-In Cinemas from 12th April.