There’s a certain frustrating injustice in the fact that Lee Isaac Chung’s semi-autobiographical Minari came out in 2020. While this gorgeous slice-of-life drama is being hailed as one of the year’s best films, that recognition carries with it some tallest-kid-in-kindergarten connotations. The truth is that Minari would be a triumph of cinema in any year. But to be plucked from the dustbin and heralded as such this year almost seems like a consolation prize.
I’ll admit, though, that I have some significant bias as far as this film is concerned, so maybe take my adulation with a grain of salt. I’m a sucker for a simple story. Writing complicated tales is easy—you string together a bunch of “what had happened was”es, cut between disparate narrative threads when one has gone on too long, throw as much as you can at the wall, and
hope enough of it sticks to be honed in the editing. Writing a simple story is significantly more difficult, and writing one that holds together narratively and thematically is an admirable accomplishment.
Minari is the simplest of tales, and a familiar one at that: A family, facing unendurable financial hardship and lack of opportunity, moves to a strange new place in search of a better life. Familiar though that plot kernel may be, Chung tells it in the most unexpected of ways, never going for the obvious twists, never beholden to the traditional three-act narrative structure.
In some respects, a lot of what you’ll get out of the film is dependent upon what you bring into it, because Chung’s thumb never rests too heavily on the scales. Speaking purely for myself—a Caucasian southern man whose familial roots grow in rural soil very similar to the setting of
MINARI AT A GLANCE
A Korean family’s attempts to farm in rural Arkansas told in a deceptively simple tale that adds up to one of the best films of 2020.
Shot digitally, the movie is a beauty to behold, with imagery that evokes the organic quality of Kodachrome film.
The film surprisingly benefits from a Dolby Atmos mix that helps evoke a three-dimensional world without getting gimmicky.
Minari—I was drawn almost as much to the setting as I was to the human drama of it all. I’ll admit, though, that I tensed up the first time a white southerner appeared onscreen. You almost can’t help but expect the residents of rural Arkansas to be portrayed as caricatures, as overtly racist and malicious bumpkins. They aren’t, though. They’re portrayed as ignorant, to be sure, but the exact sort of ignorance that feels 100% authentic to the film’s setting; the sort of ignorance I’m met with at every big family gathering. This is simply one of the most accurate portraits of the rural south in the 1980s I’ve ever seen.
Against that backdrop, the story that unfolds is one of duty—duty to one’s parents, children, partner, and oneself. And most of the drama comes from trying to find the right balance between those interdependent dials. Duty to his parents is largely to blame for the financial struggles Jacob Yi (played to perfection by Steven Yeun) and his family suffer in California. Duty to
their children is what forces Jacob and his wife Monica (played to equal perfection by Han Ye-ri) to the Ozark Plateau. Frustration with this tug-of-war and a disproportionate attempt to be dutiful to himself contributes to Jacob’s Sisyphean struggles in his new home, both within his family and on the land that he obsessively farms.
The farm, it should be said, serves as an unnamed character in the film. It embodies the tension at the center of the struggle between an untenable past and an uncertain future. Those two forces, though, receive their embodiment in the forms of David—Jacob and Monica’s ill son—and
Soon-ja, Monica’s mother, who comes to live with the family to care for her grandchildren while their parents work at a nearby hatchery, and who plants the perennial herb that gives the film its name and so much of its meaning.
David and Soon-ja not only serve as the heart of the film, they also serve as its funny bone, adding some much-needed levity exactly when it’s needed most. As with the rural whites, it would have been all too easy to paint both of these characters with too broad a brush, but Chung packs each with the sort of contradictions essential to any human. In the case of David, that’s not all that surprising, since the boy serves as the writer/director’s proxy in the story. But Soon-ja must have been a much trickier character to write, no matter how much real-life inspiration Chung had for her. She represents tradition, but she’s an idiosyncratic, eccentric force of nature who defies tradition at every turn. That Chung didn’t chisel off her rough edges to force her into the symbolic mold she fills in the film is a credit to his skills as a writer and his faith in the audience.
Individually, David and Soon-ja are fascinating (and indeed somewhat tragic) characters. Together, they’re absolutely hilarious—the sort of duo that Taika Waititi would write if he made dramas instead of comedies.
But don’t dwell too much on that comparison. I’ve simply been so primed by a culture that’s obsessed with every new thing being categorized as “this meets that” that I found myself drawing that parallel before I could catch myself. If forced to draw deeper parallels of the same sort, I would call this film “Waititi meets Faulkner meets Sinclair.” But that’s hardly fair. Minari is boldly, unapologetically its own thing.
It’s also beautiful to behold. The film is currently available on PVOD—or “Theater at Home,” as described by Vudu, where I rented it. Vudu presents Minari in Dolby Vision with a Dolby Atmos soundtrack, both of which serve the material well. Although shot digitally, the cinematography has a very organic look that’s vaguely reminiscent of Kodachrome stock. It’s incredibly contrasty, with inky shadows and dazzling highlights; but the most prominent aspect of the cinematography is the richness and warmth of the colors, all of which are captured beautifully by the transfer.
Despite the 2K digital intermediate, there’s a wealth of detail in everything from the tattered interior of the Yi family’s mobile home to the chaotic kaleidoscope of patterns caused by overlapping layers of flora blowing in the breeze. If the film’s presentation proves anything, it’s that lenses are more essential to the final look of a cinematic work than are capture resolution (3.2K in this case) or the pixel-count of the DI.
Interestingly, though, when I switched between my Roku Ultra and my Apple TV 4K purely for the sake of thorough comparison, the latter didn’t hold up quite as well. On the Apple hardware, the Vudu stream was marred to a degree by some banding, digital noise, and lack of definition that was nowhere to be seen on the Roku.
Minari doesn’t seem like the sort of film that would benefit from an Atmos mix, but does it ever. It’s another case where, if Atmos were handled this gracefully by every sound mixer, I would be a bigger fan of the format. The extra channels are used in this case to construct the film’s world in three dimensions. Heck, if you took away the dialogue and music, it seems like 90% of what would be left would be the chirping of crickets and tree frogs and—to borrow a beautiful turn of phrase from Randy Newman—the song that the trees sing when the wind blows. Once you get over the novelty of sounds coming from overhead, the film’s mix just sounds authentic, like strolling through the wild acreage of my dad’s property with my ears attuned to the aural landscape.
And in a way, that’s an apt metaphor for the film itself as a whole. It’s obviously contrived. Every story is. But give yourself to it and there’s nearly nothing about Minari that feels contrived. It’s as honest and unforced a work of cinema as I’ve experienced in ages. Its show-don’t-tell approach to grappling with the struggles of the working poor and the realities of cultural assimilation, combined with its pitch-perfect performances and effortless artistry, make it an absolute must-see.
Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.