Few coming-of-age films are as delicately directed as Lee Isaac Chung’s deeply personal Minari. His fourth feature film, this personal story of an immigrant family adjusting to their new life in Arkansas after moving from California no doubt reflects his own personal story of being an ethnically Korean boy growing up in America during the 1980s.
From the initial scenes of David (Alan S. Kim) asleep in the backseat of the car and a moving van pulling up to the new Yi household, Chung evokes a sense of change and bring the audience back to their own moving experiences, aligning this with the characters themselves. The father Jacob (Steven Yuen) has moved his family to Arkansas for a better quality of life, a slower work routine and hopes to turn the vast grassland around the home to farm Korean vegetables. His wife Monica (Yeri Han) visibly struggles with the change of scenery, her discomfort and unhappiness often leading to arguments with David. Ultimately this leads to the arrival of Soonja (Youn Yuh Jung), her mother to move in and care for David and his older sister Anne (Noel Cho).
Most of the film is told from the perspective of the children, who are experiencing many of these things for the first time. From the first scene pulling up to the house on wheels, there is an exquisiteness to the directing that balances both the harsh realities of the situation and the comedy of life. The home itself feels claustrophobic at times and is the centre of many of the familial tension between the characters but equally is the stage for many funny interactions between each other. Chung’s success in the film is in this juxtaposition and amalgamation of the more serious peaks and funny moments that compromise most of our lives. Particularly acknowledging his parent’s situation in his older age helps ground the film and makes it feel more “grown up” generally.
The relationship between David and Soonja is at the heart of the second part of the film and really brings the film to life. As they are forced to share a room, their relationship ebbs and flows. And rather than focus too much on the health of either character, Chung decides to celebrate both the characters as they are, not as they will be. And the audience gobbles it up, with the writing underscoring this affection that blossoms between them.
The end may be underwhelming to a degree which undermines the crescendo the film is leading towards, but the delicacy throughout the film makes it a triumph to watch and experience. It inspires tears and laughter while still succeeded in representing the Asian American experience in Hollywood, in a similar way to The Farewell did in the past. Powered by a superb ensembles of actors, beautiful direction, emotive screenwriting and a strong emotional punch that feels surprising yet expected, Minari succeeds with its goal and will be remembered as such.