Lee Isaac Chung’s Sundance winner is a well-intentioned and sweet family drama that can’t help but feel incomplete.
I never feel the need to apologize for loving a movie. I might be more inclined to defend that love, but not apologize for it. When I see a movie so beloved and come out the other side largely unaffected, though, I feel bad. Is it my fault? Is it just that I’m a cold person? I shouldn’t feel bad for being in the minority, but maybe I should feel bad that I didn’t feel a ton else. I kind of do, to be honest. Of course everyone’s tastes are different. Of course I’m far from likely to always agree with the majority.
Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari, which won both the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award for the U.S. Dramatic Competition at Sundance, has earned a swath of love since its premiere almost 11 months ago. It’s easy to see why as well—it’s kind, accessible, and optimistic. It’s sunny, but it’s not false. It’s cute, but it’s not grating. Those tightropes are crucial to walk, sure, but they’re not the only ones. With Minari, it’s up to the cast to give more life to something without enough meat on its bones. Chung’s latest wants to balance the specific and the universal, and while it does so at points, it also ends up too similar to its inspirations and just too impersonal.
It’s a simple story, sure to elicit a swath of warranted (if obvious) comparisons. It’s the 1980s and Korean immigrants Jacob (Steven Yeun) and Monica (Yeri Han) have just moved to rural Arkansas with their kids, David (Alan S. Kim) and Anne (Noel Cho). This isn’t their first time trying this sort of thing out either. They’ve just moved from California and Monica is, to say the least, opposed to their new mobile home and “hillbilly” setting. Jacob, on the other hand, is in love with the space, soil, and scope.
The couple gets a job sexing chicks nearby and, on an almost cyclical basis, Chung’s script follows the family as Monica’s mother, Soonja (Youn Yuh-jung), comes to stay with them. Monica warms up to the move. David, at first resentful of his grandmother, forges a bond with her. Jacob worries whether his decision to uproot everyone was actually for the best, and Anne… Well, she doesn’t get much to do.
Thematically and structurally, the comparisons it invites are near inevitable. There’s Yasujirô Ozu’s influence all over the place, but even more apparent are the works of Satyajit Ray. In fact, the influences are so pervasive that I was unable to stop thinking of them, often wishing I were watching one of those movies instead. It’d be different if Minari had more of a sense of texture or place, but it’s curiously lacking in both those departments.
That’s not to say the movie is plastic wrap. It’s that for all the emphasis on life in this part of America, it could have been almost anywhere. That’s not to say the characters are empty as a whole. It’s that given the inner conflicts as they relate to this story’s themes specifically, the beats aren’t the most even, and the movie sidelines Anne so much that she’s essentially extraneous.
Chung’s latest wants to balance the specific and the universal, and while it does so at points, it also ends up just too impersonal.
At times, it feels as if Minari hopes audiences will project themselves and their experiences onto the family. Other times, it’s as if Minari relies on that familiarity just enough that the film softens the personality lent by its cast, leaving the final product oddly safe. For each keenly realized choice Yeun or Han make, Chung resorts to some padded humor or, later on, a sharp turn to outward conflict that simply doesn’t work. Thankfully, Harry Yoon’s editing helps the script flow better onscreen, and Emile Mosseri’s score captures the nebulous space between hope and reality the film aims for, best exemplified in the closing minutes.
It’s clear Chung had the best of intentions here, and his love for these characters comes across even if the individual members don’t all get their fair share. So why doesn’t it pay off? Is it just me? Perhaps, and it might stay that way once the movie reaches a larger audience. Despite its purity, all the life sprouting from the ground and the family unit, other filmmakers have captured these themes better on a macro scale. Chung’s own take on this formula and look at the American Dream lack enough wrinkles. Minari is fine, probably even okay. It’ll work much better for others, and that’s okay too. For me, it can’t help but feel incomplete.
Minari opens this Friday, February 12.