Movies like “Minari” are easy to classify as a film about immigrant culture into bustling America. What allows a film like this to stand out is how director Lee Isaac Chung, makes something so incredibly warm. Following a Korean family who moves to Arkansas in the 1980s, you hear that premise with a certain expectation, particularly the detail of this family moving to a farm to make a better life for themselves. After that description, some may think that silly familial hijinks would ensue. The warmth that Chung brings to the film is simply allowing this family to act like a family. That shines in our five lead performances of this family in a revelatory fashion.
We have a unique cast of international talent here, but most notably would be Steven Yuen from “The Walking Dead.” As Jacob, the father of this family, Yuen rides a fine narrative line between a kind and stern man. I was admittedly not a fan of his Walking Dead character, so there’s a pleasant range on display here. In the relationship with his wife Monica (Yeri Han) their conversation feels incredibly organic in its narrative rhythm. Their dynamic with one another and their children creates a palpable honesty where you feel like you’re watching real people. Especially in the relationship between Noel Cho as Anne, and Alan S. Kim as David, you feel like you’re watching a documentary.
Cho is great in the sister role, but there are two scene-stealers that own every minute they’re on screen. First-time actor Alan S. Kim delivers a truly breathtaking performance. David is so much more than your typical “kid” but has some of the funniest and heartfelt moments I’ve seen in a film all year. He is paired with someone who’s known as the Meryl Streep of South Korea, Yuh-Jung Youn. Playing Monica’s mother Soon-ja, she’s someone who isn’t your typical “grandma.” She’s profane, loud, but extremely loving and caring for her family. All of these different familial personalities coalesce around this rural Arkansas community.
There is never a moment of blatant racism that these characters are faced with and they even make friends. Popular character actor Will Patton plays a town resident who eventually works with Paul on his farm. That character in any other film could be a caricature of southern people, but it isn’t here. Paul has his quirky moments and sometimes exaggerated religious ideas, but it never feels manufactured. Like with all of the performances in the film, Chung makes each character feel very well-rounded. There’s never a moment of questioning any decision being made since you feel that these characters are searching for the “American dream.”
While there are certain trials and tribulations that these sorts of movies always deal with, it’s handled differently here. I won’t spoil what those are, but they can be something as simple as wetting the bed or drinking too much mountain dew. It is in these more mundane moments that the real heart and humor are able to shine through. Having seen the film twice now, it's undeniable that I was ever bored. While you’re watching, you feel as if you’re seeing lightning in a bottle for the first time.
“Minari” is an exceptionally moving and heartwarming film on familial bonds and cultural shifts. It’s both devastatingly funny and impeccably dramatized about the struggles that still plague immigrant families. There’s a showcase of performances from first-timers to pros, that are worthy of any accolade you can throw at it. These performances are the types of things that will be talked about in how they’re treated with care. When the film opens in February, I can’t encourage you enough to seek this film out. This is easily one of the best that 2020 has to offer and it shouldn’t be missed!