Sundance Review: Lee Isaac Chung’s ‘Minari’ is a poetic and heartfelt masterwork
One of the joys of minari, mischievous grandmother Soonja (Yuh-Jung Youn) tells her equally impish 7-year-old grandson David (Alan Kim), is that the Korean herb can grow anywhere. The green herb, planted in a muddy creek just outside the Little Rock hovel that houses the Yi family, is just one of many painterly symbols of resilience and fate peppered throughout Lee Isaac Chung’s latest masterwork. It’s a heartbreaking work of cinematic poetry, and hands down one of the best films of Sundance.
Loosely based on Chung’s own childhood growing up in 1980s America, Minari follows the Yis as they move from California to Little Rock, Arkansas, to start a new life. Skeptical, frustrated wife Monica (a soulful Yeri Han) balks at their new surroundings — a mobile home mounted in the middle of an empty patch of land — but Jacob (Steven Yeun) sees potential. Yes, they have to toil away as chicken sexers, separating male chicks from female ones (the males taste bad and can’t lay eggs; they’re incinerated. “You and I should try to be useful,” Jacob tells David), but Jacob has a plan to turn their empty patch of land into a garden for Korean vegetables they can turn into a vibrant livelihood. Like many immigrants coming to America in the ‘80s, they’ve caught the bug of the American Dream, and want to carve out their own little slice of it.
It quickly becomes clear that they need help taking care of young David and his sister Anne (Noel Kate Cho); in swoops Soonja, Monica’s mother, with giant bags of chili powder and anchovies, and a playful spirit that first vexes David, then endears him to her. But even the best of intentions, and the aid of a strange, Pentacostal Korean war vet (Will Patton) whom Jacob hires as a farmhand, can stave off the bittersweet tragedies that await the Yis.
Chung’s fifth film sings with the expertise of a seasoned filmmaker, to be sure, but it also feels like the kind of energetic, exuberant, deeply personal film that would mark a bright newcomer’s debut. There’s quite a lot of Yasujiro Ozu in Minari’s quiet, delicate rhythms, its vibrant characters, and the layered social and interpersonal dynamics at play. It doesn’t betray itself with a traditional dramatic structure, opting instead for a timelessness that feels involving… until it surprises you with well-earned punches to the gut.
But don’t mistake Minari for misery porn, regardless of the waterworks that will inevitably come in the film’s final moments. For most of its runtime, Chung keeps his camera focused on the little things — gestures, day-to-day routines, the simple joys of a glass of Mountain Dew (“it’s good for you, it’s water from the mountain!” David tells Soonja) or the childlike thoughtfulness of David and Anne throwing paper airplanes that say “don’t fight” toward their quarreling parents. Minari grows from the soil of these moments, until you find your heart aching for them in ways you never expected.
Much of that has to do with the stellar ensemble at play, most notably Yeun and Youn, who both give awards-worthy performances. Yuen’s journey lies somewhere between Field of Dreams and Death of a Salesman, a man suffering from his own ambition and tossed about by the winds of fate; it’s a beautiful, meaty role for an actor who’s been taking greater chances like this and 2018’s Burning; he’s come a long way since The Walking Dead.
Youn, meanwhile, fills every room she’s in with a sweet, laconic charisma; she’ll make you laugh until she makes you cry. Han also impresses greatly in a ‘suffering wife’ role that would ring false in lesser hands, and the kids are precocious without being precious, Kim’s David carrying much of the film’s perspective on his tiny shoulders. The year is young, but Minari already sports one of the year’s best ensemble casts.
One of the most unexpected elements of Minari, however, is how little racial prejudice plays into the film’s fabric. One would expect the story of an Asian family moving to the Deep South to be filled with cartoonish racists, but the intercultural contact between the antisocial Kims and white Arkansans is surprisingly even-handed and graceful. The kids experience racist comments from other children, but Chung layers these moments with an unexpected innocence. “Why is your face so flat?” one boy asks David, before making a friendly introduction. He’s not interested in pitting the cultures against one another; he just wants to see how well-meaning people interact. It’s an instinct that goes against the usual grain, and befits Minari’s superlative poetry.
This review is from the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. A24 will release Minari later this year.
Clint Worthington is a Senior Writer for Consequence of Sound and the founder and editor-in-chief of The Spool. He also co-hosts and produces the podcasts More of a Comment, Really… and Hall of Faces for The Spool, as well as Travolta/Cage with Nathan Rabin. He lives in Chicago with his wife, his cat, and too many Criterions.