2020 SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL: A deeply personal family story became one of the quieter, lovelier entries this year in Park City when Lee Issac Chung brought his semi-autobiographical film, “Minari,” to audiences this week.
Steven Yeun and Han Yeri are Jacob and Monica Yi, a Korean couple who move their two young children, Anne (Noel Cho) and David (Alan S. Kim) from California to Arkansas in the 1980s. Jacob and Monica immigrated to the United States shortly after they were married, and spent ten long years chicken sexing in California. Jacob developed a reputation for being very fast at separating the males from the females and that reputation precedes him when they arrive at a farm in Arkansas. Jacob’s ultimate goal is to start his own farm and grow Korean fruits and vegetables, but continued work with the chickens will help them make ends meet while he gets his new business up and running. The move is challenging for the family, especially for Monica, who struggles between supporting her husband’s dreams and trying to create a good life and opportunities for their children.
Yeun first became a familiar face as a favorite on AMC’s “The Walking Dead.” Since his departure from that series several years ago, he has been steadily building a film career worthy of his talents. He took audiences by surprise last year as a menacing and mysterious figure in “Burning,” which became the first Korean film to make the Oscar shortlist for Foreign Language/International Films. Here, he plays a much different role from what we’re used to seeing. Jacob is passionate and driven, while also being a good father to his kids and a friendly face in their new community.
Han Yeri is equally lovely and brilliant as Monica. She conveys the fears and anxieties and frustration of a mother who believes her top priority is providing her children with a better life than she had. Her relationships with the kids, with her husband, and her mother, who eventually comes to live with them, are all grounded and real. When Jacob and Monica argue, which is often, those arguments are grounded in the couple’s commitment to each other and their lives. Yeun and Han are equal partners, which strengthens the onscreen relationship and makes it more painful to watch as they grow further apart.
Chung’s very personal story keeps its focus solely on the family’s life and struggles. There are neighbors that enter the picture, but mainly as a way for the audience to get to know the Yi family. Will Patton is Paul, a war veteran who starts working for Jacob. We get the sense Paul isn’t looking for a salary as much as something to do. Paul talks about little else besides Jesus and faith, and his version of Sunday church is to drag a heavy wooden cross on the road. This weekly act of penitence draws jeers and teasing from the kids at the local Christian church where the Yi family settles in.
It’s interesting that in rural Arkansas in the 1980s, the closest Chung comes to demonstrating any degree of racism is in some insensitive and ignorant questions some of the local kids ask Anne and David. The rest of the film avoids lingering on such matters and one is left to wonder whether Chung chose not to focus on it, or whether his own family was treated much more hospitably than we might expect. Either way, the focus of this story is much more introspective. The issues at the heart of “Minari” are the interpersonal relationships between husband and wife, parents and children, and the way the entire dynamic shifts when Monica’s mother Soonja (Yuh Jung Youn) comes to live with them.
“Minari” is a quiet, steady journey, lovingly crafted. There are times when it feels as though not much is happening, but the Yi family is always on a tipping point. David has a heart condition, Monica is miserable in their crumbling mobile home, and Grandma might have a gambling problem. There are issues of water access and many of Jacob’s potential customers are all getting their produce shipped in from, of all places, California. It’s easy to overlook the daily struggles while waiting for some big event or incident. But this story doesn’t rely on that, nor does it need it. The title comes from an East Asian herb that can grow nearly anywhere it is planted and has many uses. It’s a perfect title for a story so specific to the immigrant experience, but universal in its themes of family and perseverance. It is easy to see why this won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance.