A Review of Lee Isaac Chung’s MINARI

In the 1980s, there seemed to be a rather odd surge in a particular sub-genre of films: families dealing with problems while living on a farm. Even more bizarre, 1984 was when this big surge in films took place with COUNTRY starring Jessica Lange, THE RIVER starring Mel Gibson and Sissy Spacek, and PLACES OF THE HEART starring Sally Field (for which she won her 2nd Oscar and gave her infamous “YOU LIKE ME!” speech).

The truth is…I don’t like these movies. PLACES OF THE HEART was probably the best of the three but none of them hold up (though the actresses did solid work). I just feel that I tend to not get drawn into these films for one reason or another…although I think I finally found such a film that exceeded far beyond the expectation of those 80s efforts.

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MINARI revolves around a South Korean family who immigrates to rural Arkansas in 1986 with the hope of starting their own farm…although I should say its the father Jacob (Steven Yeun) who wants the farm; his wife Monica (Han Ye-ri) and children David & Anne (Alan Kim & Noel Kate Cho) are less thrilled at the prospect.

The film is actually semi-autobiographical as writer/director Lee Isaac Chung did indeed have his family move to rural Arkansas in the 1980s…though he was already an American citizen having been born in Denver. You could almost think of MINARI as not just part of the 80s FAMILY ON A FARM sub-genre but also part of the slow-burn character pieces that have come out in recent years like ROMA or going back a little further to Edward Yang’s YI YI.

I would say MINARI falls a little behind YI YI in terms of greatness. ROMA was, to me, a rather boring and meandering film that was only buoyed up by its gorgeous cinematography, interesting locales, and occasional sparks in the performances while YI YI was an absolute masterpiece.

MINARI did have moments where I felt it was perhaps a tad too slow but honestly, I think the film was quite lovely and I did care deeply about these characters. I viewed the film a couple of days ago prior to this writing and I do feel somewhat compelled to revisit the film again which is certainly a good sign for its longevity.

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Image result for minari film

Steven Yeun as the father Jacob gives a very nice performance (he is considered on the cusp of potentially receiving an Oscar nomination) and I love that he is getting more attention especially since he was last overlooked (as was the film) for his great work in 2018’s best film: Lee Chang dong’s BURNING. I was sadly not familiar with Han Ye-ri prior to this film but she does an absolutely lovely job as the mother Monica. She is strong and often reserved but she gets to show moments of great compassion and she holds her own against Yeun.

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Both of the kids do a nice job and particularly Lee’s counterpart David is adorable and his screen presence is quite warm and infectious.

However…if anyone steals this movie, it is South Korean film legend Youn Yuh-jung, who plays Monica’s mother Soon-ja, who ends up coming to live with the family once they are more settled into their home.

Last year, a lot was said about Chinese actress Zhou Shuzhen who played Awkwafina’s grandmother in the truly beautiful Lulu Wang film THE FAREWELL. It was a performance that was truly the heart of the film and a lot of film fanatics ranted and raved that the mainstream awards circuit snubbed her and the film constantly (though a lot of that could also be blamed on distributor A24 for botching its campaign which frankly is a whole other thing to complain about sometime).

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Having said that, Youn Yuh-jung is in a position right now where she is actually a frontrunner to WIN Best Supporting Actress but I know that she has a lot to overcome. To put it into perspective, no Asian-language performance has ever been nominated for an Oscar and only two Asian actors have even won an Oscar for a performance. If you lump in all of the foreign language performances that HAVE won, that number only reaches FIVE: Sophia Loren for TWO WOMEN, Robert De Niro for THE GODFATHER PART II, Roberto Benigni for LA VITA E BELLA, Benicio del Toro for TRAFFIC, and Marion Cotillard for LA VIE EN ROSE.

The list is a tad more promising when you look at those who received nominations but there still seems to be a negative bias towards actors east of Europe.

Anyways…getting off of THAT soapbox for now…

Youn Yuh-jung is what brings this movie to another level in my book. Within seconds of her being onscreen, I wanted to give her a big hug. She is a grandmother who is sly, foul-mouthed, and ready to play….and at a church service, she steals $100 from the collection plate which is quite hysterical (though I am sure the Evangelicals would flip if they ever actually viewed the movie…not that they would). Young David views his grandma as not being a “real grandma” due to her rather bombastic behavior but the truth is this woman exudes so much warmth and love along with her zest. Whenever she is onscreen, my attention was primarily drawn squarely to her and if there is any justice in this world, she will get nominated and she should probably win the damn thing.

Beyond the performances, the film does a wonderful job at establishing themes of culture shock and acceptance among their neighbors. In fact, the film actually does something remarkable in that they don’t really face much, if any, real discrimination from people that would today be in the heart of Trump country. You could argue that maybe it is something of a fantasy world but you could also argue that perhaps maybe not everyone who lives in middle America is bad….because that is the truth.

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A movie like MINARI was what I needed right now. It had enough warmth to go with the pathos to make it seem engaging and important and it also was a story I was interested in watching.

RATING: (out of 5 stars)

**** 1/2 (A)

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