‘Minari’ — A Marvelous Korean Masterpiece

by Hassan Ilahi

Foreign films are rarely rewarded in Hollywood. The Academy Awards have long held a tradition of awarding foreign-language films the international feature prize rather than Best Picture. However, last year the Academy broke tradition when it awarded its top prize to the Korean film Parasite. Not only did its surprising win break barriers for Korean Cinema, but it created opportunities for foreign films to gain greater acclaim in Hollywood. Now, nearly a year after Parasite became a global sensation, another Korean-language film hopes to follow its path towards victory: Minari. Could it become the second Korean film to win Best Picture for two years in a row?

With the Academy Awards still months away, this question remains to be answered. However, one thing is unquestionable: Minari is a masterpiece that that demands to be seen. An intimate, heartwarming and poignant family drama, it offers an empathetic depiction of the Asian-American immigration experience. With his fifth feature, writer/director Lee Isaac Chung draws from his own personal recollections to create a compassionate portrait of a Korean-American family. Packed with exquisite production-values, intellectual storytelling and phenomenal performances, it is one of those foreign-language films that works on every level. Ultimately, its universal message has the power to resonate with everyone that has experienced immigration.

Set in 1980s Arkansas, Minari tells the story of a South Korean family that emigrates to a rural farmland in pursuit of the American Dream. Steven Yeun stars in the leading role as Jacob Yi, the Yi family’s bread-winning patriarch. Jacob works tirelessly as a farmer to make ends meet, while his children become accustomed to a new way of living. However, the Yi family’s peaceful life is disrupted by the unexpected arrival of its rebellious matriarch Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung). As Jacob encounters setbacks, his family’s future is thrown into jeopardy.

Writer/director Lee Isaac Chung is no stranger to themes of family conflict. His directorial debut 2007’s “Munyurangabo” offered a compassionate look at the tensions between two families in the aftermath of the Rwandan Genocide. Minari, however, marks Chung’s first autobiographical drama and foray into his own upbringing as a Korean expatriate. It’s the filmmaker’s first attempt to humanize the hardships experienced by Korean-American immigrant families, but he pulls it off seamlessly. Using gorgeous cinematography, Chung draws viewers into the world of a Korean-American family that searches for prosperity in the land of opportunity. Chung’s decision to shoot the film using natural lighting techniques is risky, but it works immensely. Working alongside cinematographer Lachlan Milne, Chung successfully employs natural lighting to evoke the beauty of childhood memories. Chung excels at crafting an Asian-American family’s dynamic, and his latest feature is worth watching for this reason alone.

If stories of Korean-American families do not attract your attention, though, there are still plenty of other reasons to see Minari. From a technical standpoint, the film is virtually flawless and features the most impressive locations, production design and musical score that you’ll ever see in a foreign-language film. Assisted by production-designer Yong Ok Lee, Chung effectively employs real-life locations to recreate his childhood memories. From the breathtaking forests to rural landscapes of the farm, the Southern locations remind viewers of their own immigration. Using these locations, Chung creates a strong emotional attachment between viewers and the Yi family’s home. Moreover, the musical score is also worth mentioning. Emile Mosseri’s score is highly memorable. It gives the movie a heartfelt and nostalgic atmosphere reminiscent of Terrence Malick. Through superb production-values, Chung keeps viewers engaged in the journey of a Korean family in 1980s America.

Another extraordinary aspect of Minari that contributes to its success is the screenplay. Chung’s greatest strength as a screenwriter is his ability to capture the dynamics of an immigrant family through symbolism. In Hollywood, most movies avoid symbolism and rely on surface-level details to keep viewers entertained. This often leaves no room for meaningful discussions and prevents viewers from engaging with movies on a deeper level. Thankfully, though, that is definitely not the case with “Minari”. Chung successfully utilizes symbols to capture the Yi family’s immigration journey. For example, minari is a Korean plant that can thrive anywhere it is rooted. Throughout the movie, the minari is used to symbolize the Yi family’s resilience as it goes from resisting change to embracing a new lifestyle. Using this clever symbolism, Chung creates a compelling Korean family that viewers can easily sympathize with. Symbolism is a tricky technique to employ effectively in foreign films. However, it works tremendously in this movie. Using an intelligent screenplay, Chung keeps viewers absorbed in the lives of expatriates.

It is hard to not marvel at the magnificent performances from the cast. In an award-worthy Asian-American ensemble, every star gets to shine.

Steven Yeun delivers one of the finest performances of his career as Jacob Yi. Yeun is best known for playing fearless action heroes in acclaimed television shows (ex. 2010’s “The Walking Dead”). With Minari, however, he takes on his most complex role to date. It is not easy to portray a Korean immigrant father in 1980s America. It’s a demanding role that requires the actor to draw from his own experiences as an expatriate. However, Yeun pulls it off effortlessly. With mesmerizing expressions, he conveys the angst, desperation and steadfast commitment of a patriarch that strives to create a prosperous life for his family. It’s a phenomenal performance from one of the most seasoned Korean actors working today.

Alan Kim is astonishing in the role of a mischievous boy that struggles to adjust to his new surroundings. In his first ever leading role, Kim proves to be an extraordinary actor with rare maturity and wisdom for a child of his age. Whether he is playing a rude prank on his grandmother or eavesdropping on his parents’ arguments, Kim excels in every aspect of the role. It is rare to come across a child star with this much emotional range, particularly in a debut role. It’s a breakthrough performance that proves Kim has a bright future in Hollywood.

The last, most notable standout in the cast is Youn Yuh-jung. As the eccentric grandmother Soon-ja, she brings hilarious comical relief to the movie.

On a final note, it is worth mentioning that Minari is one of those rare foreign films that has universal appeal. Despite its focus on Korean families, the film’s message has the power to transcend national boundaries. The film tackles universal topics such as cultural assimilation, discrimination and family that everyone will be able to resonate with. On a personal level, I identified with the Yi family as a Canadian immigrant. Due to its universal message, Minari will appeal towards audiences from various cultures.

Fans of Korean Cinema will definitely enjoy Minari and so will movie-goers seeking meaningful entertainment. A mesmerizing piece of filmmaking, it proves that Asian-American immigration stories can resonate with audiences around the world. Like flipping through pictures of a forgotten photo album, it brought back fond memories of my own immigration experience that are impossible to ignore.

Hassan’s Grade:  A+