‘Minari’ makes the personal feel universal

Minari, the latest offering from production company A24, presents a complicated yet touching portrait of a South Korean immigrant family through a holistic lens. The film follows the Yi family, who try to establish their lives on an Arkansas farm during the 1980s. The story, written and directed by Lee Isaac Chung, is a semi-autobiographical portrait of his early family life and upbringing.

While David Yi (Alan Kim), the youngest child of the family, is Chung’s proxy character, the film does not take place solely from David’s perspectiveit switches between the perspectives of David, his strong-willed and determined father Jacob (Steven Yeun), and his patient but suffering mother Monica (Han Ye-ri). The arrival of Monica’s mother, Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung), creates a subtle wrinkle in the fabric of the narrative, and she quickly develops into an integral and beloved companion to the children. 

Every member of the cast is phenomenal in their roles, but Yeun, Youn, and Kim stand out. Yeun in particular gives a controlled and nuanced performance, treading the delicate balance between nurturing his family and fulfilling his own ambitions. This is highlighted in the many scenes where Jacob and Monica fight over their family’s living situation. On one night, the two come to blows over Jacob’s decision to move the family as a hurricane passes through the state. While Monica believes that the best thing for their family would be to move back to California and regain stable work, Jacob insists that it is best for them to stay so that the children can see him succeed. Jacob parallels other iconic cinematic patriarchs, such as Walter Younger in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, who is forced to reconcile his personal goals and dreams with the greater needs and desires of his family. 

The film somewhat neglects the eldest daughter Anne (Noel Kate Cho) as a character, presumably because she is not old enough to provide an impactful perspective as the adults in the film do. This is one of Minari’s few missteps, as the exclusion of Anne feels like a missed opportunity for a further exploration of the siblings’ relationship. Besides this slight narrative hole, Minari comes together in virtually every other aspect: The entire cast has natural chemistry and sells the differing perspectives and relationships within the family dynamic. The film’s score, composed by Emile Mosseri, is also a perfect undertone to the film, sounding at once hopeful, whimsical, and melancholic. 

Although some may find the plot slow and uneventful, the quiet struggles and mundane routines of the family are far from boring. The authenticity woven through Minari unveils the subdued calamity of the family’s trials and tribulations. Chung’s semi-autobiographical work is filled with love and respect for his story—Minari never appears as a sanitized portrait of immigration, opting instead to depict Chung’s recollections of his childhood and his current perception of his parents’ experiences in that setting. 

The real magic of Minari is the universality of the story. The film is deeply personal to Chung, yet its intimacy allows the audience to experience its shared truths. The story’s themes are relatable in many regards, whether in reference to the immigrant experience, the sometimes grave and other times humorous antics of childhood, or the broader notions of failure, family, and faith. Even viewers who are oblivious to the symbolism of the minari plants that David and Anne plant with Soon-ja will be moved by the tenderness and determination of the Yi family. While Chung’s story may not specifically reflect that of every person who watches Minari, the heartfelt emotions and strong relationships between the family members make the movie an unforgettable experience. 

Minari is available for viewing on A24 Screening Room as of Feb. 12. It is scheduled for VOD release on Feb. 26.

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