It took four movies before Lee Isaac Chung was ready to tell the kind of story first-timers so often rush to share straight out of the gate. Not a coming-of-age movie so much as a deeply personal and lovingly poetic rendering of his Korean American childhood — specifically, how it felt for his immigrant family to adjust to life in small-town Arkansas — “Minari” benefits from the maturity and perspective Chung brings to the project. Waiting until his early 40s to make sense of memories from when he was 6, the year his grandmother came to live with them in the U.S., Chung transforms the specificity of his upbringing into something warm, tender and universal.
Debuting in competition at Sundance, “Minari” quickly emerged as one of the strongest films of the 2020 edition, inspiring laughter and tears from predominantly white audiences. That’s significant because the Asian American experience remains vastly underrepresented in Hollywood, a glaring blind spot amid so many inclusion initiatives, whereas the reaction among Park City audiences — which culminated in a standing ovation — shows just how sincerely art-house audiences might connect to this bilingual family drama.
Still, it remains to be seen whether A24 can repeat the success of “The Farewell” (which had Awkwafina as a hook) when it releases the film later this year. Chung’s three previous narrative features weren’t exactly commercial. His first, the Rwanda-set “Munyurangabo,” premiered at Cannes, earning less than $1,000 when it played for one week on a single U.S. screen. The next two, “Lucky Life” and “Abigail Harm,” traveled the festival circuit but never played theaters. So the fact that “Minari” entered Sundance with a distributor in place is a happy miracle for a director who has always held true to his vision, and good news for audiences. (Of A24’s slate, “Minari” most resembles indie memoirs “Moonlight” and “Lady Bird.”)
Who among us — especially those who’ve had to move to a new place — hasn’t felt like an outsider to some degree during our early years? In “Minari,” which reframes the American dream through a Korean lens, Jacob Yi (“Burning” star Steven Yuen) decides on behalf of his family that they stand a better chance in Arkansas than they did in California. On the West Coast, Jacob and his wife, Monica (Yeri Han), spent a decade scraping by with the money they earned chicken sexing — highly skilled but extremely monotonous work that involves checking the gender of thousands of chicks a day (the females are kept for eggs and meat; the males are discarded).
Jacob has located a hatchery halfway across the country where someone with his talents can find work (and where Monica’s slower pace won’t get her fired). But more importantly, land is a lot cheaper in Arkansas, and his dream is to quit the chicken biz and start a farm of distinctly Korean fruits and vegetables. Back in the ’80s, Chung’s dad tried to do the same thing, which explains why “Minari” is told from the perspective of the Yis’ youngest son, David (Alan S. Kim), who’s fast asleep in the back seat when the family pulls in to their driveway for the first time.
Monica isn’t thrilled by the scene that awaits, which Jacob presents like some kind of castle: It’s a secondhand, shotgun-style mobile home, propped up on cinder blocks. “Look, wheels!” David squeals in delight. The previous owner struck out trying to start a farm on the same property, and now the locals consider the place cursed. Like Sean Durkin’s “The Nest,” which premiered the same day at Sundance, “Minari” examines how, a short generation ago, a father might uproot his family and oblige them to move somewhere only he wants to be — although unlike “The Nest,” there’s nothing sinister underlying Chung’s approach.
Rather, he’s subtly attuned to shifting emotional dynamics between the two parents, who are constantly fighting. The arguments don’t seem so bad by indie-movie standards. In fact, there’s something about Chung’s style that seems almost conflict averse (during one dust-up, the kids make paper airplanes that say “Don’t fight” and launch them into their parents’ midst), so maybe he’s simply choosing not to dwell on the negative. For example, he never accompanies David or his slightly older sister, Anne (Noel Cho), to school, and the closest thing they experience to being bullied are insensitive questions from two ignorant kids they meet at church — which doesn’t mean such teasing won’t scar them. Chung hasn’t forgotten how it feels.
Still, there’s a gentleness to “Minari” that makes the entire film, even the setbacks, feel refreshing, like a catnap taken in full sun. Chung is now older than his parents were at the time, and that gives him a second perspective on things, which can be felt in scenes that David couldn’t possibly have witnessed: loving conversations between the grown-ups, for instance, or interactions with the Pentecostal field hand (Will Patton) whose help Jacob accepts.
When the adults tell David and Anne that their Korean grandmother will be moving in, the kids worry at first. Monica’s mother has been the source of off-screen disagreements, but when Soonja (Youn Yuh Jung) arrives, we instantly love her. David’s not so sure. She’s not at all what he expected, and he makes no effort to hide his disappointment, complaining that she “smells like Korea” and punishing her for the foul-tasting herbal remedy she makes him drink by preparing an even yuckier cocktail for her.
David has a heart murmur (his attentive mom is constantly forbidding him from running), and Soonja is just looking out for him. Obliged to share a room, the two eventually warm to each other, and early laughs blossom into deeper emotions as they grow closer. Given their respective conditions, it’s safe to assume that at least one of them won’t survive this delicate drama, although Chung avoids manipulating audiences on that front. Rather, “Minari” invites us to care about this family, and by the end, we’re so deeply invested, he doesn’t need to embellish. As written — but even more importantly, as performed by an all-around terrific ensemble — the characters are easy to admire, and even easier to love. So, raise a glass of Mountain Dew to Chung’s achievement, and run, don’t walk, to “Minari.”