Minari: An inspirational immigration story about what it means to be American
Minari is an auto-biographical movie about writer and director Lee Isaac Chung’s own experience as a small child immigrating from South Korea to rural Arkansas. Chung’s story uses a surrogate character, David, to represent himself in a story about his father’s struggle to start up his own farm. The sacrifices necessary to fulfill the dream of owning a farm affect the entire family, (David, his sister, Anne, and his mother and father, Monica and Jacob) and put the limits of their bond to the test. Things only get more complicated when Monica’s elderly mother moves in with them to help take care of the kids while the parents are working in the day.
Chung’s film sounds like it could be an ultra-serious domestic drama with little room for happiness or humor but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Certainly, Minari has stressful moments of tension, it couldn’t be dramatic without them, but most of the runtime is warm and joyful. It cleverly makes use of David as an audience surrogate to explore heavy material through the optimistic perspective of a child. This led me to spend most of Minari’s runtime with a smile across my face.
The dramatic elements aren’t always colored with the aforementioned warmth, often the weight of the story can be clear enough to David, and in turn the audience, that it pulls the story back to reality. This drama is anchored by solid performances across the board with special consideration for Steven Yeun as Jacob and Youn Yuh-jung as the childrens’ grandma. Yeun has established himself as one of the best working actors in Hollywood and continues to be excellent as he brings humanity to a role that could otherwise be read as destructive or reckless. Yuh-jung will be a new face for American audiences but has a well-established career in Korean cinema and effortlessly translates that experience to create a multifaceted and instantly lovable grandmother character.
Despite my praise of Minari it does have a mortal flaw, a failure to connect its different elements in a meaningful way. It balances humor and drama well but never becomes anything more than the whole of its parts. This makes it an enjoyable watch but leaves little to take with you after the credits roll. It has a sincere voice with lots to say about America, and those who call it home, but ends up feeling both derivative and heavy handed in its messaging.
Minari is currently in theaters and available to rent from all Video-On-Demand services. Carried by a sweet voice and excellent performances, Minari is a great time from start to finish, but leaves little to take home with you. – 3.5/5 stars