Minari is a semi-autobiographical film written and directed by Lee Isaac Chung that tells the story of the Korean Yi family trying to start a small farm in Arkansas in the 1980s, and is one of the best films of the year.
Father Jacob (Steven Yeun) and mother Monica (Han Ye-ri) take a job sexing chickens to pay for the small acreage they’ve bought. Jacob’s plan is to grow exotic vegetables for America’s growing Asian market, but Monica is unhappy with their very rustic living conditions and isolated community. In tow are daughter Anne (Noel Kate Cho) and son David (Alan Kim). David has a heart defect that means he has to take special precautions not to exert himself, sheer torture for a small boy with lush countryside to explore. When it becomes too hard to run everything and raise the kids, grandmother Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung) moves in. To say things don’t go as planned is an understatement, but it’s impossible not to cheer for the family in their struggles.
This is a very simple but absolutely exquisite film. Far from the traditional Hollywood framing of the immigrant experience in America as hostile, the Yis experience nothing but kindness from their rural, Southern neighbours. The film is disarming in its portrayal of Southerners and religion, showing a church happily absorbing the new family (who are a little bewildered at some of local customs) and happily portraying some of what we’re now told are “microaggressions” as innocent curiosity and friendliness. No-one is made to look a fool, here. Chung is especially generous in the portrayal of hired hand Paul (Will Patton), a simple, deeply pious, frequently glossolalic man who prays at the drop of a hat and carries a giant cross down the road every Sunday, to even the churchgoers’ bewilderment. Where another film might portray Paul as a figure of fear or fun, here he is simply a kind, well-meaning person with different beliefs.
The film is so decent in its portrayal of the locals that, for viewers seasoned in Hollywood’s deep hatred of rural people, new encounters generate a constant tension as you wait for someone to do something awful. The performances are exceptionally naturalistic. Even the children are a pleasure to watch, especially as they interact with the hilarious Soon-ja, a nearly completely useless grandmother who nevertheless wins them over with her sheer kindness and spirit. Special commendation must also go to Lachlan Milne’s gorgeous cinematography, which is never flashy but, combined with Emile Mosseri’s score, gives the film an achingly melancholic tone.
Minari is not a comedy, despite many funny scenes, and is quite emotionally overwhelming at times. It’s a film that has you cheering for tiny victories for good people, and utterly dismayed when disasters strike.