A Film a Week - Minari

 previously published on Asian Movie Pulse

The biography and the filmmaking career path of the American auteur Lee Isaac Chung is a bit peculiar. Born to the first-generation Korean immigrant parents, he grew up in rural Arkansas, studied ecology at Yale and planned to go to a medical school before giving it up for his filmmaking dream. After a number of shorts realized during his studies at the University of Utah, his shot his first feature “Munyurangabo” (2007) in Rwanda and in Kinyarwanda language (as the first ever narrative feature film). It premiered at Cannes to a great critical reception, signalling a significant talent on the rise. His next two features, “Lucky Life” (2010) and “Abigail Harm” (2012) were more to the typical American indie side, while he went back to Rwanda to co-direct a documentary called “I Have Seen My Last Born” (2015).

For his last one, “Minari”, premiering cum laudae at last year’s Sundance, he went back to his personal history. It paid off, awards- and reviews-wise, bringing the significant amount of buzz in the pre-Oscars season. Some of the reporters hurried to draw a parallel to the last year’s Oscars sensation, Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite”, but aside from the nominations prospects and the label “Korean” attached to them, there are no significant similarities between the two. Chung’s film is actually a quiet, deeply personal indie account of a Korean-American family moving from the city in California to a farm in Arkansas in the 80s in order to pursue their own piece of the elusive American Dream.

Minari” opens with gentle music, a sunny day and a family travelling in the car to their new “home”, a long defunct trailer in the middle of the field. Pater familias Jacob (Steven Yeun, magnificent as always) has a dream of self-made success with a farm specialized in Korean vegetables to be sold to the ever-growing Korean community in the American heartland. The mother Monica (Han Ye-ri, giving a heartful performance) is not a firm believer in the idea, but she is willing to give it a go as a sign of support to her husband. They have two children, the older daughter Annie (the newcomer Noel Kate Cho) and the younger son David (Alan Kim) who has some heart problem and who is our focal point and the director’s alter-ego of sorts.

The parents work long hours at the nearby hatchery and spend most of their time at home arguing, while the children, especially David, are exciting about the prospects of the life on the farm and are willing to help out. The arrival of their grandmother, Monica’s mother Soon-ja (Yun Yuh-ying, glimpsed as the protagonist’s demented mother in last year’s “Beasts Clawing at Straws”) is supposed to be a game changer, but the elderly Korean woman hardly fits into the children’s vision of what a grandmother is supposed to be like. While every modest success seems to be overshadowed with a greater failure, the real question is can the family stay together in the seemingly never-ending times of crisis?

Demonstrating a considerable script economy skill, Chung manages to touch a number of serious topics like immigration, fitting into a community while being a standout, the outdatedness of the American Dream concept, war trauma and post-war poverty in Korea, as well as the family dynamics driven by success and failure. He also spices things up with some subtle and also not so subtle humorous moments based on the generational differences. The title after an Asian wild herb often used as spice in Korean cuisine is being used as a clear and potent metaphor.

Chung’s directing style is soft, which is reflected in all of the technical aspects of the film. The camerawork of Lachlan Milne, most notable for lensing Taika Waititi’s “Hunt for the Wilderpeople”, stresses all the differences between the wide open spaces and the cramped indoors ones. Harry Yoon, who edited the fast-moving Kathryn Bigelow’s “Detroit”, now had to work in a different gear, but the sense of rhythm is clear even in pretty slow pacing. The gentle music composed by Emile Mosseri fits the movie well to the point it is rarely noticeable. It is evident that Chung takes his precious time and space to let the characters breathe and develop and to let the situations play out in a naturalistic fashion.

Being a character-driven piece of cinema, “Minari” demands a lot from the actors. Steven Yeun clearly has the star power, but here he is quite subdued as a man who has to find a balance between his obsession with the success of his project and the (sometimes stern) love for his family. Han Ye-ri is equally marvellous as a woman tired of her husband’s escapades, but devoted to the sense of the family sticking together. While Annie is slightly under-developed as a character, David and the granny are the primary source of the film’s humour with their banter. Playing a card of a sweet boy with a rebellious side to it, Alan Kim quickly wins the hearts of the audience, while Yun Yuh-ying makes her character’s fish-out-of-water quirkiness work perfectly.

Serious, but warm, gentle, but not too loose, dramatic, but not melodramatic, “Minari” is a lovely piece of cinema that hits on an emotional level. As such, it might serve as a dark horse in the awards season.

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