Movie review: Minari

(image courtesy IMP Awards)

As an articulation of hopes and expectations go, it is hard to go past The American Dream.

As an idea at least; in practice, of course, as with any headily idealistic thought given voice by people, it is often deeply and unequally flawed in its delivery, more akin to a cruel bait-and-switch ploy that something wondrously good and posisble.

Even so, it understandably exudes a powerful pull and appeal, driving many people to place everything on the line for a shot at the gleaming brass ring far ahead of them.

People like Jacob Yi (Steven Yi), a Korean immigrant to the United States who after a decade sexing chickens at a hatchery in California and saving as much money as he can with wife Monica (Han Ye-ri), has bought land in Arkansas where he hopes he can establish a thriving Korean vegetables farm to local shops who currently have to import everything from the west coast.

It is a sound plan given the number of Korean immigrants settling in the Midwest but like all good plans, it does not go according to plan, and it is the unfolding divergences from Jacob’s evocation of his version of the American Dream, that forms the heart and soul of Minari.

Divergences that it must be noted having an effect on his long-suffering wife Monica who, rightly or wrongly, believes Jacob’s dream is misguided, a tilting at windmills proposition that cannot and will not end well and which could endanger their children Anne (Noel Kate Cho) and David (Alan Kim) who has a heart defect which precludes him from running and expressing the sort of exuberance that comes naturally to a small boy.

(image courtesy IMP Awards)

A quiet and unassuming film rich in sumptuous visuals and an emphasis on visual and facial expression over dialogue, Minari, written and directed by Lee Isaac Chung, is a realistic love song to the hoped-for realisation of the American Dream.

In ways that are alternately heartbreakingly poignant and richly funny – the humour in an otherwise serious film comes courtesy of Monica’s mother Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung) who is delightfully quirky and not, in the words of David, a proper grandmother given her propensity for swearing, not baking cookies and wearing men’s underwear – Minari beautifully and affectingly tackles what it is like to try and realise a long-held dream when so many obstacles lie in your way.

It is realistic about the struggles Jacob and Monica face and the pressure this places on a marriage that was supposed to save them but is instead increasingly a noose around both their necks, or at least Monica’s (who believes her husband is more devoted to the dream than the welfare of his family), who believe their move to Arkansas is imperiling David’s precariously balanced health.

Thankfully, it does not resort at any time to jingoistically celebrating the American Dream, understanding its appeal but also appreciating and exploring its inherent weakness and flaws and how so much of its power is due not to a person’s drive and determination, but to factors far beyond their control.

It’s a salient observation because so much of the American Dream’s ethos ride on the power of the individual to affect change and make it happen but all that means is that what could be a happily motivating ideas soon becomes an unwieldy, weighty albatross around a person like Jacob’s neck, more curse than hallelujah blessing.

When you face, as Jacob does, a loss of water to keep your crops verdant and alive, and a slew of other challenges whose revelation in the film is key to its narrative’s richly nuanced power and so won’t be talked about here, it doesn’t matter how committed you are to your dream; it may fail anyway.

(image courtesy IMP Awards)

In the light of all these pressures, what stands out in Minari is how the Yi family deal with the realisation, or oft-times, non-realisation of their dream.

Key to this intimate part of the film’s narrative is David, a boisterously lively young boy who first resents and them embraces his grandmother, though not without some typically naughty acts along the way.

Soulfully realised by Alan Kim who is impressive for such a young actor, David is the emotional heart and soul of a film that may be about Jacob and his drive to do something of which he and his family can be proud – he is helped with quirkily religious sincerity by farm worker Paul (Will Patton) who is a delight throughout, all aching vulnerability and desperate bombast – but which really is about what will happen to the next generation.

Anne is old enough to understand that some things aren’t right but David only sees the chances to play and be with his dad and be loved by mum and grandmother (in her gloriously unorthodox way which is both hilarious but profoundly touching later in the film) and so for him the move is mostly one long, magical adventure.

That’s not the way it is for Jacob and Monica, nor for Anne really who ends up being more mother than sister at times, and Minari doesn’t pretend we are necessarily racing to some sort of happily ever after finish line (though that is somewhat hinted at), choosing instead to acknowledge that glaring realities of their predicament while celebrating the possibilities of untainted hope and optimism unwittingly displayed by David.

Awash in eerily beautiful and emotionally evocative and cinematography that is both envelopingly lush and harrowingly poignant and soulful, Minari is an exquisitely rendered evocation of the thorny place that exists between enunciation of a dream and it’s longed-for coming to pass.

It is not always a place that everyone escapes, as the current state of the United States demonstrates all too well, and you wonder at times if Jacob has doomed he and his family rather than potentially elevated them, but in its exploration of the American Dream and its living-out by one Korean immigrant family in ways powerfully and affectingly intimate, Minari allows us to see again how enticing hope can be, how hard it can be to bring the object of this hope to fruition and how much it matters to the human soul to have something to look forward to in life, even if it comes with the very real possibility of everything being lost along the way.

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