Minari ★★★½

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

Things are a bit too convenient, a bit too “neo-liberal” (as in unrealistic and idealistic), but Minari still manages to charm through its gorgeous cinematography, wonderful lead performances, and sparse-but-emphatic score.

The struggles of the Yi family are palpable and affecting. The film is at its best when it focuses on their domestic struggle. Their characters are about as real as they come. And the assimilation of immigrants into a dissonant land and culture is a topic of serious interest to me. Lee Isaac-Chung treats his Korean characters with the same humanity as does the monolithic Takahata or Kore-eda. However, the nuanced and true-to-life impression the story gives us sort of stops there. Where there is incredible uncertainty and authenticity in the proceedings of a Kore-eda or Takahata film, that is where Minari struggles. I found the American characters often lacking, both in terms of performance or of a third dimension. They were not quite stereotypes, and some of them, like the cross-bearing Paul, were fascinating and charming. But, most of them felt like they appeared to advance this tightly wound story and nothing more. Their inclusion, and Lee Isaac-Chung’s decision to make them tertiary, is a wise one. The drama is best when hyper-focused on the Yi family. However, the characters could have existed more as fully fledged beings than mile-counters on the film’s highway.

In regards to symbolism, Lee’s obsession with religious images and stories stops being so symbolic when incessantly repeated by the characters in the film. Through the visuals alone, we can deduce Jacob Yi’s infatuation with this land and interpret it as a Garden of Eden. We need not to hear him speak it, nor for Paul or any one of the other religious characters to sermon upon it. We can infer, through the biblical floods, the pestilence and water divining, the miracle healings, and the happy ending, the religious undertones (now overtones) of the film. It is this sort of literalism that parades as symbolism that really brings down the quality of the picture, more so than the unfulfilled tertiary characters. It is the same problem something like Green Book has. We can understand Don Shirley’s cultural dissonance without Tony Lip chowing down on some KFC. It is a classic case of telling not showing. And occasionally, I rolled my eyes.

And yet, despite these considerable failings, Minari is still a charming picture. I was touched by the quality of performances from our Korean cast, especially the mother, played by Han Ye-ri. In addition, the heart of the drama is pure, even if the story wraps up too neatly and is overwrought with needless literalism. At the end of the day, despite the overbearing “themes” of the work, something authentic and beautiful manages to squeeze out from under the muck. And that is a boon to the honesty of Lee Isaac-Chung’s vision.

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