Genre: Drama Running Time: 1 hr. 55 min.
Release Date: February 12th, 2021 MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Lee Isaac Chung Actors: Steven Yeun, Yeri Han, Alan S. Kim, Noel Cho, Will Patton, Yuh-jung Youn, Esther Moon
hat is this place?” When Jacob Yi (Steven Yeun) shows his wife Monica (Yeri Han) their new home in Arkansas, she’s in for a surprise. Though their children David (Alan Kim) and Anne (Noel Kate Cho) set about investigating the house with glee – a mobile home, complete with fascinating wheels and blocks to stabilize it – Monica is disgusted by its “hillbilly” appearance. But at least their place is on a large plot of land (somewhere around 50 acres), where Jacob envisages growing a Korean vegetable garden. “This is the best dirt in America!”
The Yis work at Wilkinson Hatcheries, having previously slaved away in a comparable business in California, staring at chicken butts all day (a sorting process called sexing that weeds out the useless males to be destroyed). But there they had nothing (and most of Jacob’s savings went to supporting his parents, a custom of his Korean heritage); here, they have a tremendous amount of property and a chance at starting over to pursue the (misguided or deceptive) American Dream. With some luck and plenty of determination, they just might make it.
Despite a couple of initial, bitter fights over their living situation, the Yis harbor a certain optimism that feels serendipitous, even though they’re essentially alone out in the wilderness and an hour away from a hospital (which is concerning due to little David’s heart issues). Plus, a couple of acquaintances are unexpectedly odd (were this a horror film, things could have gone south rapidly) – in particular, farmhand Paul (Will Patton), whose religion-drenched cordiality is as alarming as it is harmless and borderline endearing. And when Monica’s mother (Yuh-jung Youn) arrives to help babysit as a compromise for Jacob’s obsession with farming, it’s yet another opportunity for relationships to become strained – and for David to act out, partly because he’s forced to share his room, but mostly because this new visitor doesn’t conform to his grandmotherly standards.
As the film explores the simple pleasures of the wilderness, the freedoms and potential of entrepreneurial self-reliance, and new friendships, it simultaneously scrutinizes darker concepts of conflicted cultural identity, discipline, living up to expectations, struggling with a sense of belonging (“Why’s your face so flat?”), the monotony of manual labor, and the woes of impending financial failure (and the demoralized actions that come from combating that possibility). The scope of the picture may be limited, especially with the small-town ’80s setting (with few locations) and the modest cast of characters, but the warmth and tenderness are breathtaking. The roles all exhibit an astounding authenticity, made more compelling by their intimate environments and situations. More than anything else, “Minari” is a character study.
Perhaps the most affecting performance comes from Yuh-jung Youn, an uncommon voice of reason yet a bit of a rebel; the striking humanity she imparts in everyday routines and plain observations is thoroughly compelling. In her unconditional normalcy, she’s a spectacular cinematic presence. Her turn is the most dependable; by contrast, Monica’s is the least, given several sequences to develop understandable objections, which are inexplicably – and disappointingly – discarded toward the conclusion, as if permanently assuaged by unrelated tragedies. By the end – featuring a powerhouse of a climax, even if it’s contrived – as misplaced measurements of success are weighed against personal strengths and the heartbreak of familial strife, this becomes a conspicuous misstep with emotional justifications. “Minari” might hope that specific ambiguities are realistic, but it’s considerably unsatisfying when those subtleties ignore numerous, previously defined motivations and mindsets and conflicts – and the revelations that desperately needed to occur for both of the main characters to realize true contentedness. Fortunately, the gentle, peaceful score by Emile Mosseri is consistently mesmerizing.
– Mike Massie