Judging from the trailer and poster, some audiences will jump to the conclusion that Minari is about the Asian-American experience. Lee Isaac Chung’s semi-autobiographical film is about so much more, though. In addition to Korean-Americans, it’s a film that will resonate with anyone who’s ever had to share a small space with several people. It’s a film that captures the confusion of moving to a new place, especially if there’s a language barrier. It’s a film that understands both the frustration and the dedication that comes with being a family. While the film will be remembered as a milestone for Asians in American cinema, Minari is for audiences everywhere.
Steven Yeun has come a long way since playing Glenn on The Walking Dead. He gave an engrossing supporting performance in Lee Chang-dong’s Burning. In Minari, he solidifies his leading man status as Jacob Yi, who uproots his family from California to an Arkansas farm. His wife Monica (Han Ye-ri) is immediately dismayed by their new home on wheels. Nevertheless, Jacob remains resolute that they can make a living selling produce. Daughter Anne (Noel Kate Cho) and son David (Alan Kim) go along for the ride. David is pushed to his limits, though, when he has to share a room with grandma Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung).
Yeun is worthy of a Best Actor nomination for his layered performance. Fixated on trying to build a farm, Jacob forgets that he’s supposed to be building a family as well. Han is given an equally difficult task, playing a wife who tries to be supportive, but never hesitates to voice her opinion. In a less crowded year, Han would also be a shoo-in for a Best Actress bid. The scene-stealers, though, are little Alan Kim and big Youn Yuh-jung. It’d be easy to turn David into a cloying, precocious child and Soon-ja into the quirky grandma. Kim and Yuh-jung couldn’t be more natural in the roles, however. We never doubt the animosity, respect, or love that develops between them.
In a lesser film, there would be a stereotypical hillbilly who treats the Yi family as outsiders. There’s no villain in Minari, however. While the Yi family does stand out from the rest, they’re welcomed by the community. A religious man named Paul (Will Patton) even lends a helping hand around the farm. The real struggle in this film comes from adjusting to a foreign land and learning to deal with disappointment. Life doesn’t turn out how any of the characters envisioned it. Through the little triumphs, however, hope blooms in unlikely places.
Minari once again proves that the best movies don’t always follow a conventional three-act structure. It plays out like a collection of memories, which makes sense since Chung’s script draws on his own experiences. The film is reminiscent of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood in its depictions of childhood and change. At first, it may feel as if you’re watching a home movie. By the end, you may see a little of your own life in these characters.
Minari opens in theaters on February 12.