Reviewing Minari is like explaining the sunset. I could explain at length how molecules and particles in the atmosphere affect the direction of light rays, scattering colors across the sky (or tell you to google it, which is what I did), or you could just watch the sunset and sit in awe of the decoration above the horizon. It’s grand, but fleeting, and words might weigh it down. Minari is just as delicate. Composed of the fleeting moments that define our lives in hindsight, even describing Minari affords it a regularity that doesn’t quite fit right.
Written and directed by Lee Isaac Chung and loosely based on his experiences growing up in the 1980s, Minari follows a Korean-American family that’s been chasing opportunity across the continental U.S. After a career move in California goes south, the Yi family heads east to Arkansas, where patriarch Jacob Yi (Steven Yeun) believes he’s bought the perfect farmland on which to grow Korean produce. His wife Monica (Han Ye-ri), disillusioned by past failures and their strained marriage, isn’t thrilled by the new vocation, so she copes by inviting her grandmother to leave Korea and live with them instead. The Yi kids David and Anne are just along for the ride.
David, played with risible personality by the adorable Alan Kim, has much of Minari told from his point of view, ostensibly because he’s a stand-in for the director. But it’s an ensemble film through and through, and the cast is one for the books. It feels superfluous to say that Steven Yeun is in excellent form — everyone but The Academy seems to have taken notice of his stellar work over the last few years — but he sure is. Han Ye-ri is just as good. She does a lot of the emotional internalizing that female characters in this time period are asked to engage in (with the endgame of a climactic externalizing later on), but she’s also careful to let Monica’s more subtle tremors rise to the surface, developing the character even when the screenplay isn’t foregrounding her. And of course, there’s Youn Yuh-jung, a legend in South Korea. It’d be criminal if she didn’t achieve similar acclaim on American shores for her turn as the most delightful grandma in movie history.
The cast is in fine form on their individual terms, but it’s the ways they interact that imbues the film with soul. You can practically feel the healthy work environment of Minari’s set: the time and space Chung must’ve given his actors to feel out their characters and introduce them to one another; the first-hand understanding of life that was translated so carefully to a group of consummate performers. They make the world feel lived-in—ripped from memory and compressed, as if by magic, onto the screen. A director who can foster a family of such holistic performances is rare.
Chung and cinematographer Lachlan Milne concoct a similar vibe for Minari’s visual style. This is a film of light and open space, of room to breathe, even when the characters are feeling boxed in. They may be trapped by family allegiance or economic turmoil, but there’s usually somewhere else in the frame for them to go, whether it’s closer to another person or out the door. These little forks in the road (and the roads that extend from them) are where Minari likes to stage its scenes. The Yi’s new life in Arkansas is sometimes promising but always isolating, prompting each of them to reach outside their family bubble to manage. The grasp Minari has on the crisscrossing consequences of communal life—both macro and micro, culturally and personally—is practically alchemical.
The film’s climax plays a false note by going a little too macro with the plot, though. Much of Minari has the same regard for expectations that American life does, but the ending does the predictable thing and goes big, almost functioning as a deus ex machina in the way it forces its characters to interact. But the fact that Minari’s version of a deus ex machina is an excuse for character work only evinces how genuinely humanitarian it is. It’s a tribute to the universality of particularity—our shared melting pot of differences in which we find our only common ground—and an essential immigrant story for it.