Minari ★★★★½

Minari is a gentle movie, yet its gentleness hides the emotional grandeur that builds underneath all of its small moments. Its simple without being simplistic, as writer/director Lee Isaac Chung mines personal experience to deliver this tale of a Korean-American family who have moved away from the city in order to try and start a farm in rural Arkansas. The family moved, but really it was all the father’s decision, one that he made to try and better his family’s station in life, without taking into consideration anyone else’s opinion for how that would be achieved. Like a lot of immigrant stories, Minari is about the struggles of assimilation. However, while most of the time those stories are of immigrants assimilating with American culture/society (and there is some of that here), Chung’s movie is ultimately more about a family assimilating with one another.

With an excellent ensemble to guide them along, the Yi family is made up of five distinct individuals, all of whom we get an understanding of their inner lives, their struggles within the family, and the arc that we see them go through. I wanted to shout out the performances of Steven Yeun and Youn Yuh-Jong specifically, but then I felt like that was doing a disservice to Han Ye-ri, Alan Kim, and Noel Kate Cho, because everyone really is so good here, easily the best ensemble of the year. Each member brings something vital to the table, without us ever feeling like it’s any one particular person’s story that we’re seeing everyone else through the perspective of. That’s a rare thing, and I think Chung accomplishes it tremendously.

This is the kind of personal story you would expect to see come from a filmmaker’s debut, them writing the story they felt they were born to make. Chung wisely chose to wait a while, having three other narrative features in his canon before he felt this was the right time to tell his story. The benefit is having this assured vision from start to finish, never once meeting any of the hiccups or growing pains that are often associated with debut films. Minari is marvelously crafted, with gorgeous cinematography from Lachlan Milne and an excellent score by Emile Mosseri. The costumes and production design for this period piece really help us feel rooted in this time and place, building a world that feels so real.

There are so many exquisite details throughout, little touches that feel so true to life, like the way that the kids are obsessed with Mountain Dew, and how they think it’s good for them because their father told them it was “mountain water”. There’s also many little pieces of symbolism sprinkled throughout, from the obvious significance of the title to smaller ones, like the movie opening with the family arriving at their new home, with the father coming in one vehicle while the rest of the family are all together in another vehicle separate from him. The fact that the parents both work in a factory where they have to separate baby chicks by male and female, where the males are then incinerated because they are deemed “useless” as they can’t provide, felt like a particularly astute reflection as it gives the father a constant reminder of the ways that he is failing his family the more he struggles to get the farm going.

There’s so much going on here, but it’s all rooted in this unnerving sense of authenticity that Chung and his top to bottom incredible team are able to establish. I felt like I was living in this world in a way that movies rarely achieve. In a lot of respects Minari reminded me of Roma, how we feel as though we are living this experience along with this family, to the point where you can forget you’re watching a movie. It can sometimes feel like there’s not a lot “happening”, but that belies the fact that real life isn’t as flashy as it’s often made to be in the movies, and what Chung is giving us is an investment in the daily living and personal dynamics of this family, so that when these small moments of emotional release eventually come, they feel like oceans because of all of the time and patience Chung, and the audience, have put into the film.

Added to Top 250 films of all-time
Added to 2020 ranked
Added to Ranked: A24 films

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