Released: 18th February
Seen: 31st March
Of all the Oscar films this year, there are a few that are actually making history for who is nominated, from the first film with an Asian woman director to be nominated for best director (Nomadland) to the first film with an all-black producing team to be nominated for best picture (Judas and the Black Messiah, which I hope I get to see before the ceremony). Another history maker, and I can’t believe it’s taken 93 years to get to this, is the first Asian American man to be nominated for Best Actor. Steven Yeun earns his place in film history just for that alone, but he also earns it by delivering a beautiful performance in the film Minari.
Minari takes place in 1980’s Arkansas where a small family of Korean immigrants have decided to move to a farm where the father, Jacob Yi (Steven Yeun) hopes to make a living selling Korean vegetables to local stores. This dream of Jacob’s is causing a rift between him and his wife Monica (Han Ye-Ri) so they are either constantly fighting, worrying about their son David’s (Alan Kim) heart condition or at their job at a nearby hatchery where they sort chicks by sex (staring at chicken genitalia all day would put me in a bad mood too).
In one last attempt to hold the family together, they invite Monica’s mother Soon-Ja (Youn Yuh-jung) to come and babysit David and his sister Anne (Noel Kate Cho) to try and give David and Monica a little more time to handle work and their new farm, but living the American dream is never easy and for the Yi family it might be too much for them to handle.
Minari is a simple little film with a charming family that you immediately root for within seconds of meeting them. There’s just something about the Yi family that makes you want everything to work out right for them and every obstacle that comes their way. There’s a certain ease with the proceedings, every new day in these characters’ lives is a treasure to watch and feels so realistic that it really didn’t shock me to learn it was just pulled from the director/writer’s real life because it feels so honest and pure.
It’s a rare film that can make even the irritating characters work, but Minari is so loaded with charm that even the hyper-religious friend Paul (Will Patton) has a certain something that ends up making you like him. Every character is so loveable, which honestly makes it even harder when things just don’t work out at certain points because you want nothing more than for this family to be OK.
The real heart of Minari, the part that I would’ve gleefully watched another 2 hours of, is the stuff between young David and Soon-Ja. This strange relationship between a boy and his grandmother where the grandmother is so different to what one might think of as a normal nana that the kid flat out rejects her. Not only do they get some of the most genuinely adorable scene (especially at the end, there’s a final shot of the two of them that actually brought a tear to my eye) but also the funniest scenes in the film.
There might not be many genuinely hilarious moments in Minari, it’s very much a drama, but it knows exactly when to play the comedy and has it so finely tuned that when the jokes hit, they hit hard. Most of the comedy comes from Soon-Ja in a performance that is the definition of movie stealing. I will admit I had never heard of Youn Yuh-Jung before now, South Korean films are sadly a blind spot (in part just due to availability down under) but her performance is so committed and hilarious that I’m actually angry I never knew about her before.
Minari is a touching, poignant and charming film that almost has more power now than anyone could’ve imagined thanks to real world events going on right now (Do I even need to say “#StopAsianHate” or can I just assume that I’ve cultivated a readership of people who aren’t assholes who need to be told that?). It’s amazing, a film that would be powerful and fun no matter what language it was in but throw in the fact that this is some glorious mainstream representation and a way to introduce a new audience to some fantastic actors they might not have known… Minari is objectively great in every possible way, one of my favourite films of the year.