Those who are invested in film discourse online will be able to tell you about the interesting discussions that Minari has produced this awards season. Despite being an American made movie, about a very American experience, the picture was designated to the Best Foreign Language Film category at the Golden Globes on the account of more than 50% of its dialogue being in Korean. It won the award, but the conversation rolls on about whether Minari should have been classed as such in the first place. For now, though, I was just interested to see how it actually turned out!
Minari tells that story of a Korean American immigrant family who move from California to rural Arkansas to start a farm. With father Jacob (Steven Yeun) determined to achieve his dream no matter the cost, mother Monica (Han Ye-ri) and children David (Alan Kim) and Anne (Noel Kate Cho) are forced to adapt to a less than desirable home environment that starts to cause friction within the family. The arrival of Monica’s unconventional mother Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung) from South Korea adds further strain, and the narrative proceeds as a stark examination of what is takes to chase the American Dream, and whether it is truly worth it in all circumstances.
I’m having a tough time trying to figure out my feelings on Minari. Objectively, I can appreciate that this is a truthful tale, beautifully rendered, but at the same time, I can’t deny that it left me feeling pretty miserable. Perhaps I was just in the wrong headspace when watching, because there are countless small moments of light and hope across the plot, but something about this movie really hit me in an emotionally negative way that makes me reticent to revisit it.
I would’t go as far as saying that Minari approaches anything near ‘misery porn’ territory, but the various elements of the plot come together to showcase just how crushing and exhausting an aspiring immigrant life can be. From the various micro aggressions by locals to limited employment opportunities to a generalised feeling of ostracism within the community, the picture painted of the Yi family’s prospects in Arkansas are pretty bleak, and with the added detail of young David’s heart condition, the wider picture doesn’t evoke much joy.
Where the film does provide some tenderness and personal growth for characters is in the inter-generational relationship between David and his grandmother. Their initial friction and cultural differences, over the course of the narrative, turn into something special and meaningful that brings a lot of heart to the movie when circumstances elsewhere are still so dire. As someone with a ‘foreign’ grandmother myself, I can appreciate a lot of the small details here, the clashing of cultures that morphs into a special relationship where the lines blur and both parties learn a little from one another. It is very touching and feels very touching.
With the exception of Youn Yuh-jung’s eccentric grandmother, the performances in Minari are very understated and restrained, but purposefully so. As a married couple, we never see much intimacy or warmth between Jacob and Monica. Both Steven Yeun and Han Ye-ri do some really interesting work here, with Yeun’s Jacob in particular coming across as a hard working and devoted patriarch on the surface, but the reactions of Ye-ri’s Monica, along with plot details like Jacob moving his ill son more than an hour away from any hospital, ask the audience to question just how single minded his dream is, and whether it is the best solution for the entire family.
Alan Kim and Noel Kate Cho share a fun on screen bond as brother and sister. Switching effortlessly between Korean and American, often to talk secretly around their grandma, they capture an essence of what it is like to be a first generation immigrant with one foot in your foreign heritage and another in the country that you feel more connected to.
When Youn Yuh-jung enters the film about a third of the way through, she really shakes things up in a refreshing way that adds a nice change of pace. Yuh-jung injects a lot of fun quirkiness into a story that otherwise would be incredibly, incessantly melancholy, but even then the actress has her own moments of poignancy. In a film filled with more reserved performance, Youn Yuh-jung definitely stands out as my personal MVP.
Overall, I have to come to the conclusion that Minari is a rather excellent slice of life drama, perhaps almost a coming of age drama, but its inherent melancholy makes it a very bittersweet watch, one that not everybody is going to want to vibe with. The film is poetic and lyrical and beautifully shot, but despite an ending that promotes a metaphor of strength and recovery, it left me with quite a glaring sense of hopelessness that I wasn’t wholly expecting. Do I need to give this another chance with a more positive mind? Perhaps. Regardless of how it made me feel, it’s an impressive work.