Lee Isaac Chung’s Stunning Autobiographical Film.
“Minari” is at its’ core a remarkably humble movie with strikingly brave concepts. Sure, the movie is about race in America, but also about the perception of an ideal family, the American Dream, culture clash, and just being a child. First debuting at Sundance, the movie can now be screened virtually. I had the pleasure of seeing this movie through A24’s virtual screening- not as early as critics and not the early release but still much earlier than I was willing to wait.
“Minari” is the story of a family moving from California to rural Arkansas so that the father (Steven Yeun as Jacob) can follow his dream of starting a farm. The family, especially Jacob’s wife, Monica. are hesitant at first, because of their son David’s heart condition and the distance from anything they know (namely a hospital), far from their old home of California.
Told from David’s perspective, it’s a simple premise, and from there opens a wealth of nuance from telling this Asian family’s story. Though it’s not just about an immigrant family, it’s an autobiography of the director, Lee Isaac Chung himself.
One thing I love here is how honest the movie is. Too many movies paint children’s early years without nuance, either as little angels or uncontrollable monsters. Alan S. Kim as David carries a lot of weight here, never coming off as annoying or petulant but as a normal child, in thought and wonderment of the world. His character has a lot of pathos, and we see him grow a lot through the story. David’s sister Anne (Noel Cho) is terrific as well, balancing the line between annoyed sister and caring hand.
This portrayal of David is not to say the movie shies away from the difficulties of raising children- David does some mean things here, but it’s all forgivable and paints him as a truly vivid character, which is rare for a child so young. Like all great characters, David is likeable but not perfect.
I hate to retread old bones but I was never a fan of The Walking Dead, so I had never seen Steven Yeun act before. That said, seeing him in “Burning” (an extremely good movie by Lee Chang-Dong you really need to see) before this made me interested in his subtle approach and presence.
His performance here is resolute and quiet. Yeun is completely believable in the role, a father who would give everything for his dream. It’s clear that Jacob has bought the idea of the American Dream and will do anything to make that dream come true. As a father, he is tough but always caring. I thought Minari would focus more on his character and his struggles, but this is a movie about David, and every scene is filtered through a child-like lens.
Will Patton gives a stunning performance here as Jacob’s farmhand/friend Paul, and where is the source of a lot of the movies’ spiritual undertones. He carries a cross on Sunday and talks about Jesus at every opportunity. Though, Paul is just as humble as the movie itself. He is unshakeable in his faith but never tries to force it on Jacob and his family.
Monica’s mother (played by Yuh-Jung Youn) is introduced by way of making Monica herself feel more comfortable in Arkansas adds some levity to the narrative, as well as creating another dynamic relationship other than Jacob and Monica’s marriage. She is directly opposed with Jacob, as she’s a character from the city that spouts profanity and at times verbally spars with David. David does not like her at first, but her presence is integral to David’s development as a character and the direction of the story at large.
“Minari” does not linger on the negative. Much Like Paul’s character, Chung instills a feeling of serenity, steering away from conflict or easy ways out. Racial microaggressions are entryways to a new friendship, in the case of David. At the beginning of the film, David’s mother Monica is hesitant to enter their new home, a mobile home in the middle of a clearing. It’s an easy point to interject some early argumentation between the parents, but the movie plays it slow, along you to grow with these characters before they begin to flourish. It seems that Lee Isaac Chung often tries to avoid conflict in general. At one point, David and his sister Anne make paper airplanes to get their parents to stop arguing.
None of this is to mention the great cinematography here, which makes remarkable beauty out of very little. There is a lot of natural light through the fields used here, which gives the movie an even more personal touch and allows the viewer to sink deeper into the story. Like Jacob describing a Garden of Eden, you begin to believe he may actually find it in rural Arkansas. Exchanges between characters often focus very closely on the face, allowing the actors to really display their talent here.
I cannot imagine the struggle of working in rural Arkansas, working most days of the week chicken sexing, only to come home and continue to work on the farm to create a better life for your family. Chung’s autobiographical tale is told with such honesty and restraint that it is easy to cheer on this family, though they have their strife and their disagreements, they are there together at the end.
It’s easy enough to call “Minari” a universal story about an Asian immigrant family making it in America. There is no doubt that the movie will strike a chord with its’ audience through its coming of age tale. Though to leave it at that would be a disservice to Chung’s deft hand at telling an autobiographical story with such honesty and vulnerability. There is no massive speech, no fiery confrontation a la “Marriage Story,” just David’s childhood laid with care. It’s a deconstruction of the American Dream told from a child’s perspective, and is impressively humble in its’ approach.
It’s amazing what clarity nearly 30 years of perspective can bring to memory, and Chung has done the absolutely magical here in creating “Minari”. It’s a simple story told well, with vulnerability, leading to a climax at the last 15 minutes that will leave you in awe.