MOVIE REVIEW — Minari (PFF29)
Lee Isaac Chung’s American Dream — ★★★★1/2
For anyone who has been keeping tabs on “buzz films”, Minari has been at the top of most lists since Sundance earlier this year. Being released by A24, starring Steven Yeun, who is coming off a string of high profile roles (Sorry to Bother You, Burning, Mayhem, and Okja), and being directed by Lee Isaac Chung (Munyurangabo) with the film being based off of his childhood experiences, this film as a whole has had a lot going for it since it debuted. Having now seen it as part of the Philadelphia Film Festival, I understand why. Spoiler Alert: It is landing quite high up on my list of favorite films of 2020.
So let’s skip the formalities, and let’s just talk about Minari.
This review is part of a series of reviews of films screening at the 2020 Philadelphia Film Festival. Check out my review of Zoe Wittock’s Jumbo!
Set in the 1980s, Minari follows Jacob Yi (Steven Yeun), his wife Monica (Yeri Han), their daughter Anne (Noel Cho), and their eight year old son, David (Alan S. Kim), as they move from California to Arkansas in an effort to carve out their own American Dream as Jacob starts their family farm. Marital issues arise quite early on in the film, as Jacob and Monica land on differing sides of their beliefs for what the family should be doing, with Monica wishing they hadn’t spent all of their money on farmland in the middle of nowhere, and Jacob wanting to leave a legacy for his children. Not being a natural farmer, Jacob enlists the help of his neighbor Paul (Will Patton), a Pentecostal who punishes himself every Sunday by walking the backroads with his own crucifix, as well as occasionally breaking out into tongues throughout the movie. Soon after work begins on the farm, Monica’s mother, Soonja (Yuh-Jung Youn) arrives and instantly begins clashing with David, as he continually notes that she “does not look like a grandma”.
Beautiful and heartbreaking are probably the two best words that could be used to describe Minari, painting a vivid picture of a family on the verge of collapse, with husband and wife slowly falling out of love for each other, grandmother on the verge of death, and son, only eight years old and living with a life-threatening heart condition, and then having that family upended, moving from California to Arkansas where they have nothing… Lee Isaac Chung directs the fuck out of this movie, and I can only imagine the emotional stakes for him in writing and directing this retelling of his own troubled youth, growing up in America with such unstable conditions. The American Dream died a long time ago for most, but for immigrants seeking a new start in the country, it is this idealistic vision of what life can be in the “land of the free”, and that only makes the fallout of the climax that much more impactful, seeing all of Jacob’s hard work over the course of the film come crumbling down. From the ashes however, it does appear that the family may be salvaged, which does offer a glimmer of hope in such a horrible moment of defeat for the whole family as the farm burns. For a movie about farm life for a Korean family in rural America, which admittedly is not the most enticing premise, this film is an absolute home run for A24, Chung, the cast, and everyone involved in it. I would also be remiss if I did not mention The House of Us, which I also just recently watched for this film festival experience (still no review up for it yet, but eventually!), as it is another Korean film that also is a family drama with a similar family dynamic, marital issues and all. If you haven’t seen it and get the opportunity to, I would recommend it as well.
As someone who used to adore The Walking Dead, Steven Yeun has always had a place in my heart, really being the soul of that show as Glenn, obviously before he had his skull smashed in with a baseball bat (R.I.P.), and so it really has been exciting to see him popping up in more and more big films since exiting TWD. The only one I will directly mention here is his role as Ben in 2018’s Korean cinema masterpiece, Burning. Once again, Yeun has shown he is not just some pizza delivery boy in a zombie apocalypse, bringing nuance and heart to the lead role of Jacob in this film. At the time of me typing this up, I have yet to put out my review for Sound of Metal (another film screened for PFF29), but I am officially starting to have a list of my favorite performances of the year, with Delroy Lindo (Da 5 Bloods), Riz Ahmed (Sound of Metal), Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat 2 and Trial of the Chicago 7), and now Steven Yeun (Minari, obviously)leading the pack for the men, and honestly, I can make arguments for all four, but we still have Gary Oldman for Mank, so only time will tell.
All that being said, I would be out of my mind if I didn’t spend a section of this review gushing about Alan S. Kim. If this kid isn’t the most wholesome child actor in the business then I don’t know who is. Every scene he had in Minari where he was paired with Yuh-Jung Youn was a show-stealer, with the two of them having some of the most natural, familial chemistry I’ve seen on film for two people who are not actually related. The screening of the movie was also preceded by a short minute clip of Alan introducing the film, naming the cast and wishing a good watch which just added to the overall wholesomeness of the dude. I for one am very hopeful that he gets more roles because aside from Yeun, Kim is the star of the show.
Bonus Note: Kim also gets one of the best lines in the movie, with “It’s not a penis, it’s a Ding-Dong!”. Seriously, this kid is a gem.
Minari is another step in the right direction for positive, varied, diverse representation in media, with Lee Isaac Chung staking his claim as a great director, Steven Yeun giving an award-worthy lead performance, and Alan S. Kim stealing the show (and hearts). Following a string of high-profile releases in 2019 with Midsommar, The Lighthouse, Uncut Gems, and Waves, A24 has done it again and found themselves another potential award season darling. And for those concerned that A24 may one day drive off a cliff with the quality of the releases, Minari is not the movie to end their run of amazing releases, being towards the upper echelon of their filmography.
With COVID-19 causing everything to be so uncertain right now, I really do not know when this will be available to see readily or when it will get a VOD release, but whenever the opportunity does arrive, please watch this film. It really is one of the most beautiful movies of the year.
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If you’re interested, here’s my review of The Irishman from last year’s Philadelphia Film Festival: