Sundance Favorite Is One of the Best of 2020
DIRECTOR: LEE ISAAC CHUNG/2020
Nothing about Lee Isaac Chung’s breakthrough film Minari looks like my childhood, but everything about it feels like my childhood.
My family is not one of Korean immigrants, I did not grow up on a farm, and I wasn’t alive in the 1980s. I have never lived in a mobile home or rural area, and I have never moved from the city in which I was born. I am the oldest of four children, I went to the same church until I was an adult, and I never had a major health scare. The specific story of Minari is one I’ve never lived, but so many moments of it made me flash back to the one I have.
That specific story is of David (Alan S. Kim) and his family’s move to Arkansas to start a farm. His father Jacob (Steven Yeun) wants to escape the small yards and meaningless work they had in California, and his mother Monica (Yeri Han) wishes that didn’t mean living in a house with wheels in the middle of nowhere. His sister Anne (Noel Cho) is his babysitter as much his peer, and he thinks his grandmother Soonja (Yuh-jung Youn) is not a “real grandmother” but an annoyance who shares his room.
If “family starts a farm” sounds like an unimpressive sell, my apologies—it’s difficult to summarize a film short on plot but rich in character. Chung’s Sundance hit is a portrait of a marriage in conflict and a family in crisis. It’s about the finding individual identity within your family, and it’s about how much you sacrifice to maintain those relationships. We watch the Yi family fear failure, find meaning when life feels out of control, and heal through nature. Most of all, it’s the story of David becoming sentient of the world and relationships around him. Not much happens at all, and so much happens all at once.
The cast makes these relationships feel so lived in it’s as if cameras have just dropped in to watch their lives. Youn’s Soonja arrives fully formed with so many layers we know we could watch an entire film just about her. Likewise, we only learn bits and pieces of the Yis’ hyper-spiritual but kind neighbor Paul, though Will Patton’s performance suggests an entire life story. Perhaps there’s no better example than Jacob and Monica’s marriage. The richest interpersonal conflicts in stories are between two parties the audience knows are both a little right and a little wrong—the actor’s challenge is to make that moral ambiguity evident while remaining faithful to the perspective of the character. Jacob and Monica both fight for things they need (purpose, protection), but they both drag their feet to fight for their life together. Chung’s script doesn’t give Yeun and Han tons of dialogue to express that conflict, but we don’t need it. These actors show the strain on their face from the fights they’ve had off screen, and while you might side with one of them over the other by the end, you feel the strain yourself for having to choose between two people you care about.
Many of their disputes are unseen for another reason: Minari makes the unconventional choice to tell a full-family drama from the perspective of the youngest child. Though every Yi has an arc, we watch many events at David’s level, looking up at his parents as they make decisions that will affect him. In one instance, they leave the room for an argument and we only hear the compromise they reach when they tell their kids about it the next morning. We spend little time in the rooms Jacob, Monica, and Anne sleep in—our world is David’s world, and that is his bedroom, the living area, and his father’s “Garden of Eden.” Kim, just seven years old during filming, makes David stinkin’ cute and also just a stinker like every seven-year-old you’ve met. In a pandemic-free world, this kid—the most adorable awards season kid this side of Jacob Tremblay and Quvenzhané Wallis—would be tearing up one red carpet after another. (At least we have his parent-run Instagram account, which is a joyous collection of his many cowboy outfits.)
Writer/director Chung drew inspiration from his own childhood in Arkansas, and what a gift it is to be invited to share it with him. David’s perspective radiates with a golden hue many of us have when recalling childhood memories, and the wistful score from Emile Mosseri (who dazzled us in The Last Black Man in San Francisco) mixes piano, strings, and vocals to make us feel like we’re an adult David looking back on our youth. And perhaps that’s one reason Minari struck a chord even though its biographical details are nothing like mine. Like David, I have a quirky grandmother who watches a lot of TV, drinks a lot of soda, and let me get away with shenanigans when I was in her care as a child. Like Anne, I was the older sister responsible for the wellbeing of my younger siblings. I lived in fear of spankings and tornadoes, and my parents did their best to hide financial worry from me. The miracle of Minari is we’re inspired to revisit our childhoods, and what a gift it is to be invited to share in that feeling again.