When the Yi family arrived to their new, sprawling property in Arkansas by way of California and Korea before that, they did so in separate cars. The patriarch, Jacob (Steven Yeun), drives a truck full of belongings and relics from an old, rapidly vanishing way of life. He and his wife Monica (Yeri Han) spent the better part of a decade on the West Coast determining the sex of chicks — later, when the couple begins doing the same in America’s heartland, he informs his son that the male chicks are useless: no flavor, no eggs. She drives the kids, daughter Anne and son David (Noel Cho and Alan Kim, respectively, both revelatory and transcendent). Jacob arrives to their new home with jubilance and a vision. Monica arrives confused. The kids are merely fascinated by the fact that their home sits atop a set of wheels.
“This isn’t what you promised,” Monica tells her husband as she stares down their cramped, lofted trailer home. He all but brushes aside her worthy grievance with his persistent retort — “We said we wanted a new start” — which comes from a man whose view of his land is something stronger than rose-colored. He wishes to build a garden, no, a field of crops spreading far across their untouched acres. Korean vegetables are what he insists on growing and selling, never mind the fact that Middle Americans aren’t exactly familiar with Korean radish, nor Korean folk. They’re even unsettled by how they speak, how they look. When the Yis attend their first church service, a young boy asks David why his face is so flat, a young girl asks Anne to stop talking when she hears Anne speak Korean(and proceeds to recite words of racist lore, most of which begin with the letters “ch”), and when Monica begins to strike up a conversation with some fellow churchgoers and notes that her English isn’t so good, they chuckle. They deem her “cute.”
Lee Isaac Chung’s autobiographic miracle of a film, Minari (which the Lincoln Center has released virtually for one week starting on Dec. 11 and will be released in theaters by A24 come February), is both a beautiful and striking tale of assimilation, an immigration story that ascends far beyond the tropes of films that typically brand themselves with such a designation. For this film doesn’t merely parse the tribulations of adaptation, but also the genesis that occurs throughout one’s youth, the dynamics of a fraying marriage, the battle between conformation and independence… Lee Isaac Chung has told a tale for just about anyone to love witnessing, though it’s most certainly singular.
Nary a generalization appears throughout the film. Not inside the Yi’s trailer which becomes a real home, in time, one populated with framed family portraits and gashes in the dressers that we children insist we know nothing about. Not in the intricacies of the Yi family — they’ve dubbed Mountain Dew “mountain water” and drink it as though it’s as available and healthy as what comes from a tap.. Not Jacob’s farming technique or his efforts to perfect the crop’s irrigation, nor the pure and generous Paul (Will Patton) who helps Jacob by selling him a tractor and working on his farm.
It’s here (and there and everywhere) that Chung makes his film more about the struggle of fostering relationships than the struggle of watching them crumble, more an experience in natural growth than a melodramatic and plotty tale of dreams and nightmares. He has both a meticulous eye and memory; scenes are staged like they’re coming from an old family photo album, one full of the elements that chart one’s personal journey through life and maturation, not merely still moments in time.
And sure, some of those are there, but that’s when Chung’s eye comes into play more. Between his staging ability, Lachlan Milne’s cinematography (which echos the energy of a Terrence Malick film, consisting often of images and angles from within and beneath the earth), and the best score of Emile Mosseri’s (The Last Black Man in San Francisco) career, every sequence feels alive. The images of characters are stunning, but the moments he can pull from his memory and place on script and screen are both touching and visceral.
Chung has noted that he waited to make a film of his story until he had a few other successes to show for himself, and on every level, Minari feels not as if it were a ‘step up’ but rather a flight into a different stratosphere. His recollection and talent for making minor details feel monumental brings you inside the Yi’s trailer, and into the recliner as Jacob and Monica engage in a shouting match about the merits of his decision to move the family. One of the most minor of anecdotes recalls the children’s response to this fight, which seems to be one of many: the retreat to Anne’s room as soon as the first verbal punch is thrown, where they begin to make a fleet of paper airplanes. On them, they write “Don’t fight,” and other olive branch messages. Anne gives David a folding tip and they launch them at their parents in order to defuse the tension.
Their attempt fails, but the scene is far from forgettable. It’s a snapshot of one of their many crises — some greater than others — most of which involve and occur beside family. When Soonja (Yuh-Jung Youn), Monica’s mother, comes to live with the family she disrupts the brief routine David has built for himself. He’s been able to sleep alone, wet the bed in peace, and maintain some sort of solace in being the smallest, quietest, most unassuming member of the Yi clan (Kim is marvelous in his debut role, the type of actor that could make you cheer with a turn of phrase or a glance).
Not that his grandma disrupts his routine; no, Soonja is a vibrant and vulgar woman who represents tradition just as well as she represents the best way to break away from it. She wears men’s underwear, talks through wrestling matches to which she can’t unglue her eyes, and swipes money during church offertory; to David, she’s “not a real grandma.” She also smells like Korea.
But she and David gradually grow close, bonding over card games and their favorite Mountain water, and even beginning to forge a unique bond on long walks despite their plethora of differences. Their bond and the Yi parents’ matrimony take a bulk of Chung’s focus, and it shows because he evidently intends for it to carry the most weight. Minari has its gutting moments, particularly a finale that I won’t and don’t wish to soon forget, but simplified, at its core is a story of family. But even that simplification feels like an epic disservice. This story is absolute and essential, almost unfolding like a dream, and most definitely carrying the weight of a colossal cinematic experience (even if it can’t yet be seen in a cinema). It’s one that pulls at your heartstrings like you might pull at a loose seam on a sweater.
Except here, just when you feel the last tug might cause it all to unravel into a pile of string, the string grows and restitches itself into the fabric. Every instant seems to be followed by a natural chance for redemption much like, for some, life. “We’ll go broke here,” Monica tells Jacob on the cusp of the film’s final act. “Think about the kids.” Jacob tells her, “They need to see me succeed at something for once.” But is he worried about his family, or what he can prove to himself. Is he aiming to preserve his family’s dream, or his idea of the American one? From the beginning shots of America’s sweeping heartland to the closing images of what the Yis ending up making of their slice of it, every moment of Minari pulses with feeling and truth. Certainly not this year have I seen such a masterfully recollected film, a string of connected, intimate memories from a vital time in a child’s youth, a time when their most formative and pivotal experiences come surrounded by the people who will always be there: family. It’s a hard film to shake: the good news is, Chung earns that unforgettability tenfold.