Director: Lee Isaac Chung
Stars: Steven Yeun, Alan S Kim, Han Ye-ri
Conflicts of the head and the heart perpetuate throughout Lee Isaac Chung’s rural American drama Minari. Korean immigrant Jacob (Steven Yeun) has moved his family from urban California out to the verdant fields of Arkansas to start-up a farm. On arriving he dismisses the words of a dowser when looking for water, priding himself on using his mind to solve problems. Yet as time wears on and waters remain scarce, Jacob’s own blind faith in the project is tested.
In spite of telling his young son David (Alan S Kim) to use his head, Jacob is so often led by his heart. By faith. His optimism in the eventual success of their farm is countered by the pragmatism of his wife Monica (Han Ye-ri), who is openly doubtful from the moment she sees their new abode; a humble mobile home raised up on bricks. While Jacob plows into their savings setting up the farm, Monica closes ranks with the family; inviting her mother, Soonja (Youn Yuh-Jung) to live with them, and worrying for David and his sister Anne (Noel Kate Cho).
David, a sparkly, precocious boy, is subject of most of the fretting, as he has a heart murmur that may be worsening. Both parents repeatedly warn him from running, so scared are they of losing their beloved son. The portrait is of a child prevented from being one. The stress of what is vs what could be echoes the growing marital conflict between Jacob and Monica.
Soonja, meanwhile, is more trusting of her grandson’s health, and makes use of him as manual labor for her own little agricultural project down in a nearby creek.
Chung was set to give up on filmmaking when the stars aligned for Minari – an openly personal tale for the writer/director. Judging from the response, one might wonder if it was fated to turn out this way. That Chung had to pass a kind of test to finally have the outright success he was striving for. Faith in such things is all over Minari. Jacob and co. find themselves in a sparsely populated but deeply religious part of the land, and the film charts trials and tribulations, especially for Jacob, who has led his nearest and dearest into this make-or-break situation. Indeed, he comes to feel more like another Biblical character; Job.
That sense of having to weather the hardships of life manifests in several different ways. One Sunday while driving home from church, the family spot Paul (Will Patton), a humble farm-hand they know and like, dragging a large wooden cross up the lane. He declines their assistance and calls the carrying of said cross his “church”. Paul is a Korean war veteran, an amiable fellow, and a bit of a zealot. We see him speaking in tongues as his prayers grow rapturous. One senses part of his lot is self-imposed atonement. A self-made Sisyphus. Is the same true for Jacob? On some subconscious level has he manifested hardship to discover how he’ll respond? To make the successes he strives for worth it, and personal? And has he wildly thrown his family into the bargain?
There are the grace notes of Terrence Malick and Jeff Nichols ready to find here, and even Lynch (when operating in Straight Story mode, of course). But this is comfortably and confidently Chung’s own picture. Yeun – who has only moved from strength to strength following his exit from The Walking Dead – initially seems to be underplaying Jacob, but the performance is exceedingly well-calibrated. Yeun keeps much in reserve for when its needed, and a critical scene in the third act will be well-remembered by all who see it.
In truth he’s part of a uniformly great case. Particularly enjoyable is the work of young Kim, who makes David a rascal without tipping over into annoyance (a precarious balance with child actors). By turns fragile, timid, sassy and boisterous, he nets Minari bags of charm whenever it feels as though the drama is spinning on its heels.
Through three generations we experience a modern (albeit ’80s set) tale of immigration and prospecting – two concepts deeply entwined in the DNA of the American experience. Of taking on an endeavour and persevering, whether the choice is foolhardy or not. In comparing Jacob and Monica with David and Anne, one sees the rapid jump from pioneers to assimilated citizens (David and Anne speak Korean like their parents, but are more often heard and seem more comfortable in English). In Soonja we can see the past, and its importance, too.
Minari can seem deceptively light or thin, with its buoyant camerawork, episodic peppering of comedy (usually from the kids) and its respectably observed micro-dramas, but it works by osmosis, slyly cultivating a greater sense of humanity until Chung’s third act turns suddenly feel critical. There’s good and bad at the ‘end’ of this story. It’s remarkable how Chung swings us from relief to devastation and back again multiple times in the film’s final 20 minutes without getting caught up in tonal confusion.