‘Minari’ was the best film of 2020–and the most proudly American one at that
Back in January, when I first saw Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, the world felt different. The world was different. Coronavirus hadn’t been identified in the States yet. “Social distancing” wasn’t a thing. Rampant racism against Asians and Asian Americans (which was always there in a more diluted form) hadn’t yet reared its ugly head. So it’s especially strange revisiting Minari–a film that has one of the most optimistic and starry-eyed depictions of the American Dream I’ve seen on film–now that we know that reality is much less romantic than the film might suggest.
Set in the 80s, Minari follows a Korean American family–Jacob (Steven Yeun), Monica (Yeri Han), and their two children David (Alan S. Kim) and Anne (Noel Cho)–who move to rural Arkansas to start a farm. Jacob is endlessly eager to prove to his family that he has what it takes to conquer their untamed land with limited farming experience, while Monica is cautiously supportive of her husband’s endeavors. They find little things about their new home to keep themselves sane: Monica’s mother Soonja (Youn Yuh-jung) moves in to watch David and alleviate Monica’s homesickness, the family starts attending a local church, and Jacob befriends a farmhand and other locals who give him tips about maintaining his fields. But while the family starts getting attuned to their new American way of life, their strong sense of Korean identity still lingers. By the end of the film, a remarkably clear portrayal of Korean American identity starts to take form. The family that we leave the film with is not quite the same one as the one we were introduced to at the beginning. And it’s in the building of that liminal identity that makes Minari so special to watch.
That being said, Minari pulls a sleight of hand on its unsuspecting viewers. While the film itself is currently being marketed as a Korean American family’s quest for achieving the American Dream, the emotional core of the film lies within the power of Alan S. Kim’s performance as the mischievous David–spotlighting the wondrous innocence of a child who is coming to terms with his dual identity. Long after I’ve seen the film, it’s not the culture shock, parental sacrifices, or even Steven Yeun’s wonderfully moving performance that I remember so fondly about the film, but rather the lovingly contentious relationship that David has with his grandmother that anchors Minari‘s emotional core. A large part of the film is dedicated to just the two of them, alone, interacting with each other. Like many young rascals, David is resentful of his grandmother and is slightly terrified of her, haunted by her foreign, Korean mannerisms. But as the two learn to live with one another, that hesitation slowly dissipates, soon bringing acceptance to a once rocky relationship. Small, nuanced character traits like these bring the film’s lovely characters to life–filling Minari with truly heartwarming moments that feel plucked straight from reality. Chung has succeeded in penning an emotional drama that celebrates life with just the right amount of humor and melancholy… and that’s not to mention its expert cast of characters that help bring his vision to life.
It’s also worth noting that Minari is a film that is gorgeously lush with color, filling the screen with impressive green hues and shots of quiet nature that rarely make an appearance in Asian American cinema. Asian American immigrant stories are usually set in major cities, because, well, that’s where most of us are. Very rarely do we ever get a glimpse of life elsewhere onscreen. Minari, which was written about Chung’s own experiences growing up in Arkansas, is the kind of story that will hopefully inspire others from underrepresented regions of the country to do the same.
Poetically written and excellently paced, Minari is a masterpiece that I believe would have otherwise been another landmark achievement in Asian American filmmaking alongside 2018’s Crazy Rich Asians and 2019’s The Farewell. It’s just so unfortunate that it’s coming out at this specific point in time, when the United States is locked down and is facing an ugly wave of xenophobia paired with its own issues with racism (It’s worth mentioning that Minari only lightly touches upon racism in general. That’s no fault of the film’s since it’s based on Chung’s own childhood and not the primary goal of the film, but it still feels strange not addressing it given the hostile political climate). At the time of writing this, Minari has been forced to compete as a foreign film in the Golden Globes–which is ironic because it’s one of the most moving, hopeful portrayals of perseverance and the American Dream that you could ever get from a film.
But even despite what it and other Asian American films might be labeled as, Minari is a true testament to the ambition that drives millions of immigrants to build upon a better future in the “Land of Opportunity” anyways–even if that country doesn’t particularly reciprocate those feelings at this point in time.
Rating: 5 / 5
This film was screened in-person at last year’s 2020 Sundance Film Festival. To check out some of the other films we reviewed there, click here.