Director-Lee Isaac Chung
Starring-Steven Yeun, Han Ye-ri, Youn-Yuh Jung
Scott’s Review #1,181
Reviewed September 24, 2021
I proudly champion a film like Minari (2020) for further bringing Asian actors and directors into the Hollywood mainstream with a truthful story. They have slowly (and it’s about time!) begun to reap the riches from the Academy Awards and other such honors. Parasite (2019) and to a lesser degree Crazy Rich Asians (2018) helped propel respectability to the Asian film community.
With that said, I expected Minari to be a masterpiece, and instead, it is simply a very good film. That’s a tough statement for me to make. Undoubtedly, it was heavily helped by the progress I have mentioned above.
This is to take nothing away from its cast and wonderful director, Lee Isaac Chung.
I found the film sentimental and heartwarming but only during one scene did it ever feel dangerous or edgy.
Of strong interest to me is the fact that the film is a semi-autobiographical take on Chung’s upbringing, but is it a fantasized version?
The plot follows a family of South Korean immigrants who try to make it in the rural United States during the 1980s. Specifically, the year is 1983 in the southern state of Arkansas where the family sticks out like sore thumbs amid the suffocating summer heat.
Chung, who writes and directs the piece, provides a tender look at the ties that bind- family. The Yi’s are a Korean-American family that moves from California to invest in a crummy plot of land and their own American Dream. Jacob and Monica (Yeun and Han) are reduced to taking even crummier jobs sexing chicks at a local factory.
The family home changes completely with the arrival of their scheming, foul-mouthed, but incredibly loving grandmother Soon-Ja played by Yuh-Jung.
Amidst the instability and challenges of this new life in the rugged Ozarks, Minari shows the undeniable resilience of family and what makes a home. The Yi’s are resilient through the constant bickering of Jacob and Monica, Soon-JA’s stroke, bad water, and the burning of their shed which stores their goods.
The story is all well and good, and it is good, but I desired more. I blame this on the heaps of praise put on Minari and the number of Top 10 lists it appeared on.
For example, hearing the premise I couldn’t help but wonder what discrimination the Yi’s would inevitably face down in the deep south. But they faced none. In one soft scene, the young Yi boy, David, played exceptionally by Alan Kim is asked by a local kid why his face is flat. They quickly become best friends.
Another ally and Jacob’s farming partner is played by Will Patton. He is a Korean War veteran and a bit nutty yet he adores Jacob and the rest of the Yi’s and harbors no ill-will towards them. I expected him to despise them because of the war. This would have been more realistic.
The southern characters are written as nice as pie and always ready to lend a helping hand. This is all fine and good but is it realistic?
The casting is outstanding and brings the dialogue to reality. Yeun and Han bring their A-games in more than one vicious fight scene where their words crackle with intensity leaving them teetering on the verge of divorce. Yeun was recognized during awards season but Han was sadly overlooked.
Soon-Ja mixes humor with drama and will leave many viewers bawling with her facial expressions and terrific acting during the final sequence. Her performance deservedly led her to a Supporting Actress Oscar win.
In fact, the finale felt so incredibly raw and real to me whereas the rest felt sentimental that based on this alone it caused me to raise its grade from a B+ to an A-.
Beautiful landscape and brilliant acting make Minari (2020) a fine experience. It teeters too close to formula at times but offers freshness and representation for a group only starting to receive their recognition.
Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Director-Lee Isaac Chung, Best Actor-Steven Yeung, Best Supporting Actress-Youn Yuh-Jung (won), Best Original Screenplay, Best Original Score
Independent Spirit Award Nominations: Best Feature, Best Director-Lee Isaac Chung, Best Male Lead-Steven Yeung, Best Supporting Female-Youn Yuh-Jung (won), Han Ye-ri, Best Screenplay