Film Review: ‘Minari’ Is an Arresting Masterpiece With Powerful Acting, Refined Visuals, and Charming Humour
A Korean family starts a farm in 1980s Arkansas.
Director: Lee Isaac Chung
Cast: Steven Yuen, Han Ye-Ri, Alan Kim, Noel Kate Cho, Youn Yuh-Jung
Language: Korean, English
Runtime: 115 minutes
Minari has received plenty of publicity for the past few months, not least because of its controversial placing in the Golden Globe’s Best Foreign Language Film section, which it recently won. But besides that, film critics and festivals have praised Minari endlessly for its acting, cinematography, and story. And having watched it on a big screen, and still pondering over some of its beautiful moments, I can safely say that Minari deserves all the hype it got.
Directed by Lee Isaac Chung, the semi-autobiographical film tells the story of a Korean American family, led by immigrant parents Jacob (Steven Yuen) and Monica Yi (Han Ye-Ri). Together with their American-born children, David (Alan Kim) and Anne (Noel Kate Cho), they settle down in the rural, grassy plains of Arkansas, where Jacob dreams bigly of setting up a plantation that grows Korean vegetables. Monica is half-hearted about his dream, however, because they are far away from urban amenities, and David is sick with a heart condition.
As Monica and Jacob frequently get into fights – much to the dismay of their children – Monica brings her mother, Soon-Ja (Youn Yuh-Jung) all the way from South Korea to live with them. Soon-Ja is undoubtedly my favourite character. She is unabashedly vulgar and loud even to her grandchildren, and she takes unbridled joy in the simplest activities when living in Arkansas, exuding infectious happy-go-lucky energy.
However, it is towards the end where Soon-Ja shines brilliantly, her emotional and psychological complexity brought out with Youn’s masterful acting. Youn really is an absolute tour-de-force, deserving of all of the accolades she racked up for this film.
For a premise pulsing with so much tension and conflict, particularly between Jacob and Monica, it is unthinkable how this film is marketed as a comedy. Yet Lee masterfully pulls it off, writing a story that never feels imbalanced between the heart-breaking, edgy moments and the bone-tickling ones. The humour is charming, witty, absurd, and occasionally slapstick. It is not without purpose, of course, and they often serve to deliver heavy-handed topics.
David and Anne’s encounter with micro-aggressive racism, for instance, is treated with humour, and not in a way that villainises white characters or sours the cheery atmosphere. David’s inability to accept Soon-Ja as his grandmother also spurs constant hilarity, since he cannot come to terms with how Soon-Ja deviates from his Americanised idea of a grandmother.
Indeed, at one point you will realise that Lee’s humour is meant to lift your spirits and arm yourself against the bleakness and uncertainty that plague the family’s circumstances. And his humour is not meant to be demeaning or discriminatory – rather, it is humane and brimming with a variety of emotions, which is what makes the film so pleasing to watch.
Just as humane is Lee’s treatment of his characters. Almost all of them, including the minor ones, are propelled by their own desires and internal struggles, often at the detriment of other characters. Jacob is maniacally driven by his harvesting dreams to the point where he sacrifices his house’s water supply. Monica recognises how selfish she is when she brings Soon-Ja all the way from South Korea, all because she feels lonely and neglected by Jacob. Yet, despite their selfishness, never once do they seem unlikeable. Look past their flaws – as Lee did – and you’ll start to love them for their passion, generosity, and honesty.
However, as much as Lee paid devout attention to almost all of his characters, Anne’s characterisation feels underdeveloped. Even though she is shown to be independent and strong, she seems to lack a presence in the film, especially in comparison to David – which is a shame, since all of the characters, even the minor ones, are memorable with unique traits.
Even the cinematography is a mesmerising force of beauty. Light and nature are rendered exquisitely alive under cinematographer Lachlan Milne’s deft handling of the camera, especially when Soon-Ja plays with David and Anne in the grassy fields. Together with the gospel-like soundtrack, the film pays gorgeous homage to rural life in America, but not in an overly sentimental way that distracts viewers from how unpredictable and unforgiving nature can be towards humans.
Two hours of watching flew by before I knew it. Not a single scene or frame felt out of place or wasted, a testament to how well-edited and well-paced the film is. Universal in appeal and story, Minari is a modern masterpiece that intimately explores what makes and breaks a Korean American family, that truly deserves all of its accolades.
Minari will be screening islandwide from tomorrow, 11 March, onwards.