By Andrea Thompson
“Minari” just might be the most intensely gentle roller coaster you’ll ever be lucky enough to partake in.
Contradictory? It’s meant to be. “Minari” is a simple film that can be as neatly summed up as its one sentence synopsis on IMDB: A Korean family moves to Arkansas to start a farm in the 1980s. It’s a completely accurate summation, yet doesn’t even begin to approach what Lee Isaac Chung manages to bring to this semi-autobiographical tale.
When Jacob (Steven Yeun) and Monica (Yeri Han) Yi and their two young children Anne (Noel Cho) and David (Alan S. Kim) arrive at their new home in the film’s opening minutes, it seems like the perfect setup for a traditional horror movie rather than a tender family drama. Note, however, the word minutes, because any sense of impending slashers equipped with hook appendages in their isolated rural abode vanishes once they get to the actual abode, a mobile home which is a far cry from the upper middle class respectability such storylines often feature. There’s no need for cartoonishly bloody attacks when faced with the ever increasing demands of an American Dream that never quite vanishes, no matter how ephemeral it seems to become at times.
Chung has remarked how “Minari” was inspired not just by his own childhood, but a quote from Willa Cather, who once said she came into her own when she “stopped admiring and started remembering.” Cather’s writing often spoke of the breathtaking lonely beauty of landscapes that sometimes threaten to choke those who inhabit them, if not through loneliness, then the simple yet potentially devastating circumstances of nature. Likewise, Jacob’s unflinching drive to achieve his dream of becoming a successful farmer threatens to undo not just him, but those closest to him.
Men like Jacob are often called pioneers if successful, less flattering titles when they’re not, as he’s painfully aware. “Minari” doesn’t downplay the effects his drive has, both on the wife he continually fails to keep fully informed, and his children, who suffer consequences that include a lack of water in their home. Their chemistry between each perfectly cast family member is the film’s real magic, and they feel so much like a real unit that the air itself seems to crackle with a history they’re all comfortably aware of.
It’s a naturalistic ease which brings another artist to mind, one who likewise mined her own life for masterpiece material. In 2017, “Lady Bird” asked if love and attention were the same thing, and Chung’s devotion to his characters is much like Greta Gerwig’s while remaining utterly distinct. He delves into his background with similar care, and everyone benefits, from the Yis who are so clearly modeled on his own clan, to the people who openly stare at them in church, and Jacob’s employee and eventual friend Paul (Will Patton), an evangelical Christian who sincerely believes in holy water and prayer’s power to heal. Patton has made a career out of portraying standout side characters, and Paul will surely be one of his most memorable. He could’ve easily devolved into another Southern stereotype, but Chung would rather focus on his sincerity, including his Sunday ritual of carrying a large cross on the side of the road.
Such is Chung’s compassionate attention that it even allows him to depict his surrogate, the seven-year-old David, to be an outright terror at times, failing to appreciate his intensely likable grandma Soonja (Yuh-jung Youn) and even blaming her for their misfortunes. His vulnerability is real though, including a heart murmur that prevents him from running and leaves his life in a tenuous state for much of the film. He is also the source of one of its most touching moments, just as the Yis world comes crashing down yet again.
It’s a far different immigrant experience than we often see, one that hinges on acute, deeply lived details rather than dramatic shifts in plot, but it’s one sorely needed when empathy seems to be in terrifyingly short supply on the subject. Maybe America isn’t so much a melting pot as a place that makes everywhere else seem further away.