Prior to its British release at the beginning of April, Minari had already attracted wide critical acclaim, and had been nominated for a host of accolades including six Academy Awards. Written and directed by Lee Isaac Chung, it is a semi-autobiographical drama centred on a family of Korean immigrants to the United States in the early 1980s.
At the film’s beginning, the Yi family have moved East from their previous home in California to rural Arkansas where they hope to establish a farm growing Korean vegetables. In the meantime, parents Jacob and Monica take chick sexing jobs at a nearby hatchery, and Monica’s mother Soon-ja moves from South Korea to mind their two children Anne and David.
With only a couple of notable exceptions, Minari’s focus is the Yi family and their various struggles. Partly these are external struggles that the family faces in an isolated, rural community, without the conveniences of the city that they left behind, and in dealing with the unstable nature of farming as a source of income.
Like any family though, there are the internal struggles among themselves typified by the consistent rows between Jacob and Monica over where their future lies. In this sense, it covers familiar territory, but it would be unfair to suggest that Minari is formulaic. Perhaps as a result of being rooted in Chung’s own experience, the film is deeply textured and has a genuine sense of time and place.
Minari is anchored by a host of strong performances from its principal cast. As Jacob and Monica respectively, Steven Yeun and Han Ye-ri deliver deeply nuanced performances. Both are essential to the film’s success, and provide the conflict that permeates the film with the necessary authenticity to sustain the narrative.
South Korean actress Youn Yuh-jung demonstrates immense range in her portrayal of Soon-ja. Throughout the course of the film the character has both comedic and tender moments, and Youn handles both with depth. Likewise, the young Alan Kim and Noel Kate Cho deserve immense credit for their performances. Both stand out even in the present era of accomplished child actors.
Combined with these strong performances, Chung’s film is personal and moving. Undoubtedly it forms part of a recent tradition of character-driven drama films that have been a key part of A24’s recent success. Minari succeeds not in spite of this, but partly for that very reason.
The film’s story and its central themes of family and belonging aren’t new, but Chung’s distinct approach recontextualises them. Chung has a clear vision for his film that is brought to life brilliantly throughout.
Like so many great films, Minari succeeds because it is able to work within the confines of this specific genre without feeling overly familiar or mechanical. Credit for that should be given not only to its writer-director but the clutch of brilliant performances from its central cast too.
Minari was released on VOD platforms on the 2nd of April.