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We are all different but by and large, life itself is one hell of a struggle. A monumental effort and often a trial of sheer perseverance but there is way more to this complex life we all live than just achieving a set goal. It is up to us to assess what is most important in amongst the chaotic bestrew of it all and to live for it, fight for it and never lose it, and in Lee Isaac Chung‘s semi-autobiographical drama Minari, we see such ideas played out for us in what is a breathtakingly beautiful picture. Sometimes deeply sad, other times staggeringly wonderful, this story of the pursuit of the American dream, told through the eyes of a family of South Korean immigrants, is something far greater than just a tale of ‘making it’.
The film is set in ‘80s America as the Korean Yi family relocates from California to a rural stretch of land in Arkansas, where father Jacob (Steven Yeun) hopes to get out of his dispiriting chick sexing hatchery job and get his own farm going, making produce to sell, and giving his family a better life. His wife Monica (Han Ye-ri) is far less convinced and worries about their young son David (Alan Kim) and his heart condition. A rift starts growing between the parents, all while Monica’s mother Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung) travels over and moves in to help with kids David and Anne (Noel Kate Cho).
Recently nabbing the best foreign language feature award (despite some of the dialogue being in English) at this year’s Golden Globes (the very least it deserved) and receiving a richly deserved six BAFTA nominations, this Oscar-assured film is for certain one of the year’s best. Chung’s writing and direction is captivating, shattering and affirming, as he relays a story of belief and resolve, of trying and failing, and of living for that which is the most special and essential in your life. His film is one of true representation, instead of dwelling (as so many others do) on racial divides or prejudices, his is a more human and more real work, one that shows there is more to people than the biases they face and that prejudices don’t define them. Minari defies cultural barriers and shows that to be human is to struggle. It is a story anyone can relate to and feel, and yet which is authentic and real for the culture it represents so amazingly onscreen.
This is not to say the film avoids debate however, far from it. As young son David’s complex relationship with his (as yet unmet) grandmother shows. But this story of how grandma and grandson in particular bond, is one that completely melts your heart, before reshaping it later on. I connected so deeply to this story and these characters, that this film had me on absolute edge throughout, as you will them on to reach a happy conclusion, and as many trials and tribulations take place onscreen (and my do they), you are almost praying yourself for them to get through it. Especially come a finale that moved me to tears. It’s a climax that feels so unfair at first and yet proves to be the moment that shows us the most life affirming truth, as belief in one another pays off and the meaning of life is showed honestly and emotionally by these characters and those portraying them.
Steven Yeun is exceptional as Jacob, a hardworking man, who tries his best and whose determination to succeed does sometimes takeover but inside he is a man that knows what is right and what holds the most meaning. Han Ye-ri gives Monica a building strength throughout the picture that proves essential to holding this family together, and her performance is sincere and inspiring. While Noel Kate Cho gives her character Anne a similar energy, that has you thinking “like mother, like daughter”, Anne has a caring heart and toughness that is no better displayed than through her care for her family.
Though many may be most entranced by a brilliant Alan Kim as David, a mischievous but real onscreen child, who struggles to connect with elements of his culture due to his largely Westernised life but whose soul comes to the forefront in his scenes with his loving and charismatic grandmother, who is powerfully played by a scene stealing Youn Yuh-jung. David and Soon-ja’s connection is in a way the backbone of this film, and it pays off in the most stunning and poetic way imaginable. There is also magnificent support lent by Will Patton as Paul, a religiously driven but in some way troubled man, who works with Jacob on his farm and who offers him support in any way he can. It’s just another finely crafted relationship in the film that feels so tender and so pure in depicting people.
I could go on for many more paragraphs about some of the moments of sunshine and indeed pain to be found in this profound and expertly told story but much should be left to your own discovery. From Emile Mosseri’s well placed chimes of heartfelt scoring, to Lachlan Milne’s cinematography depicting a sometimes beaming and sometimes broken ‘80s USA that still feels familiar today, Minari is a very special movie. A movie I would argue is utterly unforgettable.
Minari is a profoundly human piece of work, which is unspeakably moving and features one of the hardest yet most resilient conclusions I can remember in a film for some time. Masterful.
Minari is released in the UK on the 2nd of April.
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