'Minari': Film Review | Sundance 2020

Courtesy of Sundance
Modest and winning.

Steven Yeun stars in Lee Isaac Chung's autobiographical film about a Korean immigrant family trying to make it in 1980s Arkansas.

Most immigration stories are similar in a broad sense but distinctive in the details, which is certainly the case with Minari. A rare look at a Korean family trying to adapt and make a go of it in, of all places, 1980s Arkansas, Lee Isaac Chung’s autobiographical feature is warmly observant, gently humorous in the vein of Ozu and not shy about the awful strain the struggle places on the adults in the family. Mostly in English and universally relatable, this unusual Plan B production could enjoy modest success in theatrical release if properly promoted.

After having left Korea and then failing to make it in California, the family of four with mostly Americanized names — father Jacob (rising star Steven Yeun of Burning), mother Monica (Yeri Han), daughter Soonj (Noel Kate Cho) and little son David (Alan S. Kim) — finds itself in an oversized prefab home in an otherwise seemingly uninhabited rural area. Mom and, briefly, Dad get the most meager jobs imaginable, separating male and female baby chicks in a factory barn (it’s called “chicken sexing”), but they’ve come all this way because Jacob firmly believes he can grow lots of crops on his 50 acres and find success as a farmer. “Korean people use their heads,” Jacob insists, with as much optimism as he can muster.

With no other options in view, Monica has little choice but to put up with it, but she’s nearly at the end of her rope. Despite minor discomforts, the kids are far more game, even with the lack of neighbors; kids can always find ways to amuse themselves. 

Changing the household dynamic in a helpful way is the arrival of Grandma (Yuh-Jung Youn), who provides excellent company for the kids and serves as a useful triangulating buffer between the parents, who aren’t seeing eye-to-eye on anything. Chung spends more time with the youngsters and the old-timer than seems genuinely necessary, but these are among the film’s best scenes, at once droll, impudent and true-to-life.

We rarely do see what Jacob is actually up to, although he agrees to getting help now and then from a local oddball (Will Patton), who is all but incapable of discussing anything but Jesus and can regularly be seen dragging a full-sized wooden cross down the highway in the manner of Jesus on his way to Calvary.

Whenever Jacob and Monica are alone together, they occupy one of the less severe levels of hell. Knowing all too well how he’s thus far failed to properly provide for his family, Jacob can say very little until his current agricultural gamble pays off, if indeed it does. In a rather melodramatic development, young David has a potentially serious medical condition that may demand money they don’t have. Jacob has no reassuring words he can honestly or convincingly say to his wife to make her feel better; only time will tell.

Chung, whose previous features include Munyurangabo, Lucky Life and Abigail Harm, has a light touch and a predilection for dry mirth, both of which serve him well here. Some significant new adversity — the last thing this family needs — provides an anchor for the third-act climax; given the severity of their setbacks, the film is insufficiently clear about showing how the family crisis is resolved. 

All the same, the charming low-key humor and the actors are all winning without being coy or cutesy. Minari is a modest pic but very human and accessible, and quite distinctively so in comparison to the vast majority of high-concept and/or violent movies rolling out today.

Production company: Plan B
Distributor: A24
Cast: Steven Yeun, Yeri Han, Yuh-Jung Youn, Alan S. Kim, Will Patton, Noel Kate Cho
Director-screenwriter: Lee Isaac Chung
Producers: Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Christina Oh
Executive producers: Joshua Bachove, Brad Pitt, Steven Yeun
Director of photography: Lachlan Milne
Production designer: Yong Ok Lee
Costume designer: Susanna Song
Editor: Harry Yoon
Music: Emile Mosseri
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition)

115 minutes