Sundance Review: Minari
Minari is a rare, radical act of empathy through perspective. Lee Isaac Chung’s fourth feature, which traces his childhood as his Korean family uproots to rural Arkansas, is told visually from the perspective of his stand-in, seven-year-old David. But narratively, the film makes a heroic effort to understand each member of the extended Yi family. After his film’s third showing at the Sundance Film Festival, Chung joined the audience to answer questions, explaining that when he came together with his father after the film’s premiere, “it was like, I finally see you, and you see me.” Minari sees everyone, and that’s what makes it special. As Jacob Yi (Steven Yeun) relocates his family from California to a mobile home in rural Arkansas, the differences across generations are immediately apparent. Jacob’s heart is set on farming the land; his wife, Monica (Han Ye-ri), was satisfied with the daily grind of chick-sorting (by gender) in California, a job they continue in Arkansas. Monica finds her center in faith, eventually dragging the rest of the family to a local church. David (Alan Kim) and his slightly older sister, Anne (Noel Kate Cho), seek a million and one ways to escape the boredom of rural life. And after a rocky first few days, Monica’s mother, Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-Jung) adds an experienced – if chaotic – presence to the household. Chung illustrates these tensions as only he knows how: from David’s perspective. The camera often tilts up, especially at Jacob and Monica and Soon-ja, as if David is looking on – or a younger version of the director is remembering – even when no such child exists in the scene. Marital disagreements are viewed from around a corner, just as a child pokes his head around to witness the tragedy of adults fighting with virginal eyes. These choices feel at once personal and illuminating. But Minari is concerned mostly with one very specific difference: the many ways in which members of the Yi family show their love. As Koreans who came to America as newlyweds to “save each other,” Jacob and Monica carry the heavy burden common in many first-generation immigrants. Jacob seeks financial success as building blocks for his children, so he spends his days farming, proving his self-sufficiency. Monica would rather her family be together than be successful, and her compassion is perhaps more apparent to their young children. Soon-ja, on the other hand, would rather trade pieces of herself and her culture with her grandchildren – teaching David to play cards and watching wrestling with him – than cook, or bake, or do some other task that “real grandmothers” do. The vastly different love languages across generations give rise to tensions, of course, but Chung treats each character with empathy. If the camera often tells the story from David’s perspective, the rest of the film – the score and the script, especially – take pains to walk a scene or two in each family member’s shoes. This must certainly have been painstaking work for Chung, only seven-years-old when all this occurred and surely full of the benign selfishness typical of children, but it’s what makes Minari so engrossing. To talk further of the specific events of the film would be to spoil a series of small but meaningful moments. Minari is a memory piece from its writer-director, imbued with a specificity that can come only from living. It is not, as I’ve seen many critics put it, a “slight” film. Rather, if perhaps not epic in scale, it is deeply momentous, and carries the importance that all personal stories do.