Oscar Nominations 2021 – FILM REVIEW: Minari (2020)

Dir: Lee Isaac Chung

Nominated for: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Original Score

Score: ★★★☆☆

Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari is a semi-autobiographical tale about a Korean-American family attempting the tricky task of settling into 1980’s rural Arkansas. Featuring a handsome set of performances from the entire cast portraying the Yi family, Minari is that rare type of cinema where you never once question the authenticity of it’s main characters. Understated performances and a simple film making style combine to tell a story that is clearly full of deeply held personal experiences weaved together, embellished and augmented to serve a sense of gentle reality that illuminates what is often a pretty tough experience of financial and cultural struggle.

Steven Yuen with director Lee Isaac Chung

Despite the tough times facing the family it feels deceptively breezy and full of quiet humour and love, especially for a film that doesn’t sugar coat the toll taken when the family attempt to make a home for themselves in a rural community in Reagan’s America. The film’s tackling of race and cultural differences often lies within the family itself rather than through the quizzical glances of other Arkansas residents. In its most acute form it’s the story of the family’s youngest (and most cute) member David, played brilliantly by a 7 year old Alan Kim, navigating his relationship with his visiting (from South Korea) Grandma Soon-ja, expertly played by screen veteran Youn Yuh-jung. Little David’s remark that “Grandma smells like Korea” prompts a reminder that little David has never even been to Korea. David is in some ways as separate from Korea as the Mountain Dew (naively described by the another young member of the family as ‘water from the mountains’ that is ‘good for your health’) and the pro-wrestling that light up the American TV screen are. However Grandma develops a love for both of these things as well as for another product of American life that is little David.

7 year old Alan Kim with screen veteran Youn Yuh-jung

The sometimes irksome and sometimes tender relationship dynamic between Grandma and her daughter Monica and son-in-law Jacob (an excellent Steven Yuen), as well as with David and his sister Anne (all functioning at varying levels) runs alongside the familes outward relationship with America, it’s people and it’s economics. The potential rewards and risks of both family relationships and a sense of home are at the very centre of this cleverly observed but slightly unremarkable film. No doubt Minari is worthy of your time and is certainly a drama of real quality and intelligence that is beautifully directed and photographed, but for all its good points, it is however, a tad unspectacular. This hurts Minari as much as it helps it, no doubt it is meant as an understated and subtle study of inter-generational life as well as document of particular elements of the immigrant experience but its beautiful simplicity can sometimes give way to a rather vague sense of half hearted profoundness even in the wake of the families fairly biblical obstacles. The film’s long unresolved sense of underlying tension can lead the viewer to think we might be awaiting some different conclusion and lead the mind’s eye away from some of the film’s smaller more perceptive details. It’s by no means a bad film, it’s very good in fact, but it may just fall foul of a few missteps here and there that don’t quite allow the film’s different elements to marry together stylistically as well as one might have truly hoped.

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