As I watched the strange magnificence of Minari unfold, my thoughts went to Hillbilly Elegy, Ron Howard’s flimsy, plastic melodrama from earlier this year. That film sprang from a non-fiction book, but it could not have been more hollow and unconvincing: Scene after pandering scene featured Oscar-hungry actors, bedecked in prosthetics, frizzy hair, and thrift store garb, slobbering and hollering at each other in front of double wides. By contrast, Minari doesn’t hit a false note anywhere. It may feature Korean actors and subtitles, but this feels like a powerful American elegy, and a moving rumination on dreams and disappointment, all projected from a unique and beautiful voice.
The story, set during the 1980s, centers on a family of Korean immigrants as they arrive in rural Arkansas. (The film was shot in and around my hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma.) Patriarch Jacob (Steven Yeun) and his wife Monica (Han Ye-Ri) take a job at the local poultry plant, sorting chicks by gender. They find a patch of land, where Jacob plans to grow and sell Korean vegetables. Meanwhile, son David (Alan Kim) and daughter Anne (Noel Kate Cho) struggle to assimilate into American life. As they settle into a meager house in the middle of nowhere, it’s clear this isn’t the life that Jacob planned for the Yi family.
Things get shaken up by the arrival of two eccentrics: Paul (Will Patton) is a grubby laborer who helps tend to Jacob’s crops. He prays in tongues and lugs a cross on his back every Sunday. Paul’s fanatical devotion stands opposite to Jacob’s cynical realism. (As the film opens, Jacob fires a water diviner, opting instead to sink a well based on his own deductive reasoning.)
The other kook takes the form of Monica’s rascally, foul-mouthed mother. Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung) serves as a babysitter while Jacob and Monica are away at work. Fiery and opinionated, Soon-ja slowly builds a bond with her headstrong grandson. Unfortunately, her volatile presence also serves as a catalyst for the smoldering tension between Jacob and Monica: Monica is unhappy with their move to Arkansas, while he’s desperate to prove his skill as a farmer and businessman. Almost all their conversations dissolve into some kind of squabble.
Writer-director Lee Isaac Chung crafted Minari on his own experiences growing up in Arkansas. So many scenes ring with truth, some of it painfully funny, some of it just painful: The stilted greeting the family gets at the local church, the subtle racism Jacob and Monica encounter at work, or their sheer panic at the first threat of a tornado–all of these moments feel plucked from real life. As with Alfonso Cuarón’s masterful Roma, Minari looks back at the filmmaker’s childhood with a mixture of love, longing, and loss.
Also like Roma, those complex emotions often come alive in the form of visual beauty. Chung’s film brims with green forests, babbling creeks, and sun-kissed fields. Cinematographer Lachlan Milne takes this thoughtful character study and socio-cultural meditation and unfurls a warm blanket over the top of it. Minari shares this trait with its Oscar rival, Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland: Both films paint a meticulous, intimate portrait, only to surround it with cinematic gorgeousness.
That beauty extends to the film’s performances. Where the players in Hillbilly Elegy chew the scenery like starving Rottweilers, Chung’s cast mold their work to fit the needs of the characters: Jacob and Monica have burning arguments, but they also have moments where their love subtly reveals itself. The climactic conversation between the two characters is as complex as anything in Marriage Story, and Yeun and Han pull off crestfallen defeat with devastating accuracy. Both child actors are remarkable natural, and make David and Anne into three dimensional characters. Finally, Youn tempers her scene-stealing grandma with real empathy, especially in her interactions with the irrepressible David.
This film puts me in a bit of a bind. I was good and ready to call the Oscars for Nomadland. Now, I’m not so sure. Minari tackles so many things at once, it’s amazing: On a superficial level, we see transplanted Koreans trying to make it in America, while also retaining their cultural identity. But we also see Americans trying to make it in America. Look even further, and you’ll find a good-hearted boy who must come of age somewhere between these two worlds, and a married couple grappling with whether or not their love is worth saving. Most movies couldn’t get any one of those things right, but Minari does it all with humor and grace. We might have a photo finish for best film of the year.
115 min. PG-13.