Steven Yeun, Yeri Han, Alan Kim, Noel Cho, Youn Yuh-jung
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There is a universal relevance here, and ultimately Minari leaves us relishing the fact that real life is complex, messy, and happy-sad.
Filmmaker Lee Isaac Chung was the son of Korean immigrants and grew up in the mid-west of America. In this sense, he is the ideal person to make this subtle family drama, and one suspects there is a lot of his childhood in here. The film is a slice of life but through its gentle pacing and carefully observed moments, it illustrates the immigrant experience.
We start with the family of four arriving to take up their new home in the mid-west. The father, Jacob Lee (Steven Yeun) is keen to put a positive slant on things but his wife Monica (Yeri Han), who was not really behind his idea of moving from California in the first place, sees only a glorified caravan in a field. We learn that she is from an urban background in Korea while Jacob is more chained to the ideal of a rural life.
He plans to convert their little plot into a thriving market garden and dreams of having more than fifty acres under the plough. First, though, he needs water, or he is in danger of going bust like the previous occupant of the land. The couple also have two children; Anne, an independent girl and the much younger David, who has a heart condition and whom Monica cannot stop herself from overprotecting. When she finds the childcare and supporting Jacob too much, they decide to bring out the grandmother (Youn Yuh-Jung) to make a more functional and extended family unit.
Little David doesn’t initially warm to his eccentric granny and, with the truth-telling that can sometimes get little kids into trouble, he complains that she ‘smells of Korea’.
Chung manages to get a granular portrait of both the family aspirations and the accumulating tensions, into his two-hour film. It never feels forced or too slow and the performances convey growth and change in a riveting way. A couple of the scenes, particularly between the husband and wife, are so real in relation to final surfacing of long-held unspoken problems that they are almost hard to watch.
The film isn’t just about the trials of marriage or migration though. There is a universal relevance here, and ultimately Minari leaves us relishing the fact that real life is complex, messy, and happy-sad.