Lee Isaac Chung’s brilliant new film, Minari, deservedly received the U.S. Dramatic Competition Grand Jury Prize and U.S. Dramatic Competition Audience Award at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, and his work should remain one of the most influential films of the year. Paired with stellar performances across the cast, but specifically, the powerhouse work of Steven Yeun, Chung’s exploration of strong familial ties in pursuit of the American Dream resonates with audiences across cultural or racial backgrounds. The wholesome and heartbreaking aspects of Chung’s film is bound to capture hearts across the world.
As Chung described himself as he introduced the film, Minari is his most personal film and one he is deeply proud of. Chung’s passion is directly tangible throughout the nearly two-hour runtime, and his personal narrative weaved into the film feels more than natural— it’s necessary. Chung’s story is more than a story he wanted to tell; its a story he needed to tell. In a time where the president of our country belittled the success of Korea’s Bong Joon-Ho’s Best Picture Parasite at one of his campaign rallies, Korean-American narratives, such as Chung’s, need to be told.
Minari follows the story of a Korean-American family who recently moved from California to a farm in rural Arkansas. The father of the family Jacob Yi, played by Steven Yeun, takes the considerable risk of moving his family across the country in pursuit of his dream of owning a Korean vegetable farm. His family consists of his wife Monica, played by Han Ye-ri, and his two children David and Anne, played by Alan Kim and Noel Kate respectively. As the family struggles to make a living in the harsh environment and keep ties with their Korean heritage, their Grandmother Soon-ja, played by Youn Yuh-Jung, moves into their mobile home, causing both heartwarming moments and trouble.
The success of the film can lie on nothing else except the brilliant ability of Chung to weave his own story into a fictional narrative. His openness to his upbringing, the stress of immigration to the United States had on his parents and his aggravating antics as a young child give this film an emotional level seldom seen in the current American cinema scene. Chung depicts the harsh struggles of a family trying their best to assimilate themselves within the rough, racist environment of rural America.
Minari’s key theme of assimilation is seen on a few levels, as Chung places the Yi family in an equally harsh environment as the family attempting to grow Korean vegetables in the middle of Arkansas. This metaphor works on multiple levels as every member of the family works in their own, specific way to fit not only to their new society but also fit into their respective family roles. Yeun’s role as Jacob is perhaps the most obvious of this metaphor as he works around the clock to provide for his family, but the standout in subtly of this struggle to fit in is the role of young Kim’s David. Under Chung’s direction, Kim brings the innocence of childhood to the forefront, and thus the truly wholesome aspect of the film.
As much as Kim’s work brings the heartwarming aspects to the film, Yeun’s work at Jacob grounds the heartbreaking aspects of Chung’s film. Yeun plays the troubled Jacob to perfection, as the audience feels each shifting emotion along with him. Much of Chung’s film does rest upon the shoulders of Yeun, and Yeun continued to prove he is more than capable to carry a film of this weight.
The family dynamics seemingly transcend the barrier of acting, as the emotions of the troubled family truly resonate firmly within the audience. A24 has not had the best track record with releasing each of their films to a wide audience, but hopefully, the surge of their most obvious direct competitor, Neon, will push them to treat Chung’s film with fervor, pushing for their film during awards season. Chung’s Minari certainly deserves the recognition he is bound to receive from American audiences, so hopefully, his distributor will act accordingly.