There’s something eternally endearing about the modern fantasy of dropping it all and buying a farm. It speaks to the core of our natures, we who were descended from hunter gatherers and agricultural savants, and our relationship to the modern world. Rare is the one who does it, though. Much as we romanticize and pine for those earlier, simpler times, most of us can’t be asked to give up all the sweet, sweet conveniences of modern living.
But that’s part of the poeticism of Minari, writer/director Lee Isaac Chung’s latest film. Granted, it’s status as a period piece set in the (brace for it) 1980s immediately disqualifies much of the arguments for modern living one might make, but it still speaks to our innate desires to cash in our chips and try to do things the old fashioned way.
Part autobiographical—Chung’s father owned and worked a farm in rural Arkansas—Minari is a modern fable of self-determination and personal grit. Beautifully narrow in scope, it allows for the examination of grand ideas and philosophies to flow from its tale of one immigrant family’s struggle to achieve their dreams, no matter the cost.
The film follows a young Korean family whose patriarch, Jacob (Steven Yeun, in a revelatory performance), buys a plot of land in Arkansas, moving his wife, Monica (Yeri Han), and two children, David and Anne (Alan S. Kim and Noel Cho) from their established life in California in the hopes of realizing their American dream. Overwhelmed by obstacles, Jacob fights to prove himself as a farmer and a father, even as nothing seems to go his way.
Yeun, best known for his role as Glenn on The Walking Dead, is truly outstanding as the determined Jacob, a man who fights for his dreams no matter the cost. Yeun wears Jacob’s weariness squarely on his shoulders. Ever since his inauspicious exit from The Walking Dead, Yeun has fought to establish himself as an actor capable of much more than we saw on AMC’s series. Here, he proves it, giving one of the best performances in a film in recent years.
Chung’s script, meanwhile, personal poeticism. Minari finds meaning in the mundane, injecting a sense of emotional weight into the small moments that eventually lead to the large tragedies of existence. But, like all poets, Chung realizes that there’s beauty even in the tragedy, and recognizes that joy and pain are merely two sides of the same coin, and give life the flavors that make it worth living.
Poignant and oscillating between joyous and tragic, Minari is a beautiful little film unafraid to confront big ideas and realities. Part family drama, part celebration of dreams, and part exposé on immigrant life, Chung has crafted a remarkable, personal tale of triumph and remorse, hope and failure, and the never ending drive of the human heart.
Minari is now playing in select theaters and the A24 screening room.