“You go ahead and do what you want. Even if I fail, I have to finish what I started.”Jacob
Lee Isaac Chung’s semi-autobiographical film about a Korean immigrant family setting up a farm in Arkansas is light on plot and heavy on character interaction, with the success of the farm itself less important than the fate of the family. The initial tension comes from Jacob’s decision to uproot a stable but stagnant life in California for risk that provides the possibility of growth and, although our initial impression of his wife Monica is unsupportive, the film is unusually even-handed in its portrayal of the couple. The arrival of grandmother Soonja seems like it will provide a one-note antagonistic presence, but she turns out to Minari‘s most multifaceted and fascinating character, portrayed expertly by Korean cinema veteran Yuh-Jung Youn as she shifts between childishly churlish and deeply caring. Steven Yeun, best known from The Walking Dead, is a nominal lead but this is really an ensemble cast, with the entire family being nuanced and fleshed out with sufficient screen time save for the daughter. Aside from half the dialogue being in Korean, there is little racial or cultural focus to Minari — perhaps its most universal immigrant experience is that the parents remain isolated, struggling to form deep relationships outside of the family unit, despite this particular Arkansas community being welcoming. As an amalgamation of Chung’s childhood memories, Minari may not show us anything particularly new but, in depicting the quiet struggle of industrious immigrants, it is both beautiful and timely in an environment of backlash to immigration.