Only in the deepest realms of Americana can the most profound dreams be realized. Only in America can a unique story befitting of modern prosperity can be notched into the hearts of audiences. Its very compassionate heart is not entirely in a language we’re most likely to understand, but nonetheless, an easy beat to interpret, as steady as the flow of an ebbing river. That river’s just right in the backyard of a recently bought farm in Arkansas, and in Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari, the new owners couldn’t be further away from home, lost in their new surroundings.
Having left their past behind to build a worthwhile future in the American south not be an easy trek, Chung (Abigail Harm) proves he’s not one for anything short of real-life triumph and error, hard work, and harder family nurturing. In this unique slice of the pie, there may just be a little of everything. For proud dad Jacob (Steven Yeun), mid-1980s California kept him busy though unfulfilled. Uprooting his wife Monica (Yeri Han), son David (Alan S. Kim), daughter Anne (Noel Cho), and aging grandma Soonja (Yuh-jung Youn) feels like a very logical decision, at least in theory. When applied, they face challenging ostracism from the community. As a family of Korean immigrants in a rural town, they stick out so much it’s a wonder they can get thru a day on the job. Not just in building their farm from the ground up with naught but a small trailer roof under their heads, but just as especially in a chicken hatchery.
While Jacob and Monica battle with the seething setbacks of their hatchling work, dad’s innate skill proving valuable and frustrating in equal amounts, the kids are left to wander with a wide-eyed glance toward what lies ahead, and behind them. Chung delicately places a decisive side of the narrative onto David’s shoulders, a kid with an anxious heart murmur, torn between two familiar worlds. One with the faint sound and smells of American excess, and another involving a solemn, albeit sudden reeducation on old-world customs with Soonja’s help. Newcomer Kim effortlessly invokes the angle of childhood innocence with its inherent ups and down Chung is aiming toward. While Miss Youn strides like a firecracker of wisdom and loose morals, leaving one large imprint.
Chung’s sense of family is never lost on him; much of it is purely autobiographical from every angle. Prosperous yet tense from the offset, it’s an amalgam of emotion unwilling to overlook the never-ending coil of heartache and sacrifice. And in Yeun’s performance, we see both wrapped up in unrelenting optimism. He propels his prowess, verbally and physically without ever breaking character. Jacob must roll with the punches so often in trying to provide for his flock while also fighting for a dream he couldn’t realize on the coast. The strain gets to him in a profound enough manner to leave him further unwilling to bend. Yeun appears on the screen, and he’s well-composed, never artificial in his portrayal.
Chung’s screenplay digs deeper and deeper with that quirk, never satisfied with just being a meager thrill ride for the agricultural enthusiast within us. The sense of drama may be a touch heightened here, perhaps overly for some tastes. While capturing multiple directions one simple story can go for a family of five, it may still be considered the sweet spot Chung eventually lands into at the midway point is that of marital strain. Accompanied by the rather eccentric radicalistic Paul (a delightful Will Patton), Jacob is determined to create a vegetable garden based on heritage, hope, and honesty. Those same three ideals are where Jacob is persistently challenged while living out his ambition.
One, by virtue of Jacob and Monica’s bond reaching a point of near severance. Where the lines of communication are frayed by years of imbalance and disagreement over their children’s future. Another hoping for a compassionate resolution where the pros can outweigh the achingly real cons of choosing a difficult goal over preserving what’s been attained. And the third, simply to stay true to one’s homegrown roots, and growing them beyond what we knew at birth. Thus, we have Chung’s tale in its strongest description. Expressed so candidly for the heart, for the eyes through DoP Lachlan Milne (Hunt for the Wilderpeople), and for the ears with composer Emile Mosseri (Kajillionaire) easily delivering a potential sonic steal at the final turn of awards season.
A frayed road of tension and disaster awaits this clan, and Chung seeks every opportunity to push the latter a trifle out of proportion. Nevertheless, its effect had me gripped in my chair until the screen went dark. In its best moments, Minari is a wonderful triumph tapping on the American experience, and the flawed humanism required to stretch it out. The story alone would make for an exciting novel; it’s the cast who elevates it to something truly special. Yeun leads on the gas pedal, portraying a patriarch we’d all long for at one time, hard to reason with but stubborn enough to realize the impossible, an escape from the regret of missed opportunity. In every frame involved, there’s far from anything missed. And the opportunity Chung is given lends to one joyful, if not overwhelmingly heartbreaking journey, one easily worth embarking. (A; 4.5/5 Horns Up!)
Minari is currently playing in most theaters, physical and virtual, with VOD to follow February 26; please be safe and follow CDC guidelines if you choose to visit a nearby cinema for this great film; rated PG-13 for some thematic elements and a rude gesture; 115 minutes.