Writer-director Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari comes with a sense of pedigree: His first film, Munyurangabo, about two Rwandan youth, made a huge splash after debuting at Cannes in 2007. His output has been admittedly spotty since then — an oddball character study here (Abigail Harm), a co-directed documentary there (I Have Seen My Last Born). Yet this semi-autobiographical look at a Korean American family moving to Arkansas in the Eighties feels like an entirely different beast, and something far more personal than Chung’s previous works. It’s a beautiful example of cinema à clef, done with little blustery sentimentality and a surfeit of grace notes — a textbook example of why that-was-the-summer-where-everything-changed movies are less about the tale than how it’s told.
Chung’s screen counterpart is seven-year-old David (Alan Kim), who’s been uprooted from California by his father (Burning’s Steven Yeun) and relocated to the Natural State. Pops is chasing the dream of starting a farm in order to cultivate Korean vegetables; there’s a growing diaspora in nearby Southern regions, he reasons, and thus a growing market for fresh produce that caters to homesick immigrants. David’s older sister (Noel Kate Cho) rolls with the changes when she’s not rolling her eyes at everyone; Mom (Yeri Han) is harboring resentment over the move and what she perceives to be her husband’s selfish folly. Why couldn’t they have stayed out West? Because he wants 50 acres of good American dirt (“Five acres is a hobby,” Dad explains) and the chance to make something of himself. Obstacles — some external, many more internal — loom on the horizon.
You think you know where all of this is going — and in a way, you do, given that Minari is definitely one of those films in which the complexities of a first-person past is replayed through the eyes of a child. The parental arguing, the appearance of David’s kindly grandmother (Yuh-Jung Youn) who’s come to stay with them (“She smells like Korea,” the boy complains), the fish-outta-water experience that’s compounded by the family’s immigrant status: We see all of this through our underage hero’s perspective, even as Chung’s wisdom and wistfulness informs this look back at his childhood.
But Minari has a habit of gently leaning left when you expect things to swerve right, from the casual racism that quickly defuses itself to the way the elderly relative becomes David’s co-conspirator instead of an Old World taskmaster. There’s not a false note in any of the performances, though it’s tempting to single out Kim (he’s an astounding performer with a killer blank-reaction face) and Han, who never lets the mother devolve into the cliché of a long-suffering spouse. (Kudos as well to the great Will Patton, blessing us with a humanistic portrait of the town’s Jesus freak.) Even when the grandmother character threatens to turn into a cute-biddy caricature, the film has a way of pulling things back from the brink of cloying.
When things take a turn for the tragic, you brace for the worst. And still, Chung presents things in a manner that punctures the melodrama without lessening the moments’ impact. Minari understands exactly how to blend the specific and the universal — that combination of making his story feel like yours. The title, by the way, refers to a plant used in a number of Korean dishes; Grandma brings over seeds from the homeland when she comes to stay with the family. She and David plant them by a creek a short walk from the farm. They can grow virtually anywhere, she tells the boy. And yet the leafy green still retains its native characteristics. Yes, it’s a metaphor. Yes, the film earns the right to use it.
Editor’s Note: This review originally ran as part of our 2020 Sundance Film Festival coverage.