Rating: 4 out of 5
There is a certain subtlety and understatement to Minari that evokes the finest family dramas, be those of Yasujiro Ozu or Hirokazu Koreeda, in the downplayed melodrama and quiet solace of the company of those most familiar to you, yet there is a clearly delineated climax within that separates it from these aforementioned forefathers of the genre who often favored the subdued tones of modern storytelling to the more conventional notes that this film hits upon. This is not a knock against this film, actually the accessibility of this work compared to other entries in the canon of the last few years (namely the latter’s Shoplifters which surprisingly caused a big uproar in 2018) is absolutely refreshing. Minari seldom pushes into the darker corners you’d expect it to, and this gentle subversion of expectation by filmmaker Lee Isaac Chung is actually one of it’s greatest strengths, it mediates big, grandiose moments with very small ones and allows them equal space to breathe in a deft maneuver that makes for a beautiful, moving film full of tender portraits and empathetic compositions.
The film follows a Korean-American family beginning a farm in rural Arkansas during the 1980’s. Patriarch Jacob (Steven Yeun) has all his aspirations invested in this venture and his happiness (in his mind, that of his family’s as well) hinges upon its success. The beginning is slow and methodical, deliberately charting out the newfound farm-based existence as one of routine and pastoral struggle, the biggest dramas are where the water is going to come from, where the crops will be plotted, tornado warnings (one of the best scenes in the whole thing) and the youngest child, David’s (Alan S. Kim) heart condition. Eventually the children’s grandmother Soonja (Yuh-Jung Youn) moves in with the family and this forms much of the humorous and poignant backbone of the film as her relationship with her grandchildren, David and Anne (Noel Cho) bring her considerable joy and conflict in equal measure.
Of all the performances one stands out unequivocally, Monica (Yeri Han) is the family’s beating pulse, the bind that holds them together in times of strife and conflict. Her and Jacob have disputes that rendered in the hands of lesser actors would come across as contrived and trite, instead there is a genuine chemistry and connection between the two performers, their final argument before the films emphatic conclusion is a confrontation for the ages, where the film often takes on a sense of whimsy with the magic of the American landscape there is a stark realism in this scene that contrasts the majesty with a sense of genuine gravity, standing out as one of the finest interactions in the whole film.
To spoil why the title is such an essential element to the film’s meaning would be to ruin a terrific symbolic visual that cultivates meaning as the film progresses. In such an efficient film there is one part that is never quite reconciled with the rest of the film: Paul (Will Patton), while a cute, often hopeful addition to the cast he oscillates in meaning throughout the film and never quite settles into his role, his is also the only one of the batch that borders on caricature, like he walked out of a different film and found himself in this. Not to say he’s a wasteful character just that he never finds his groove within the other elements of the film and though he imbues the land with a sense of spiritual hope the dichotomy between his spirituality and Jacob’s pragmatism serves as little more than a diversion and subplot from the main attraction which is this really lovely and sensitive display of family dynamics.
Ultimately, Minari is a winner. In a year full of underwhelming releases, here is a film that lived up to the bubble of hype it manifested and then some. On a concluding aside, the soundtrack is breathtakingly gorgeous imbuing each scenic visual with wonder and a vital elemental surge. While the film is not necessarily groundbreaking on a technical or emotional front, it swells and burns with impactful and sublime emotions, touching on themes of childhood, parenting, mortality and the promise of the American dream, all this juxtaposed with the vivid green hues of the Arkansas landscape congeals into something striking. Certainly one of the best films of this year’s award season and undoubtedly one that will stick in your heart for some time to come.