Minari review – moving and modest coming-of-age Sundance hit

The autobiographical story of a Korean American family trying to sustain a farm in rural Arkansas has deservedly become the festival’s most universally loved film

In a year without many talk-of-the-town breakout hits, the word that’s been repeated most often at Sundance has been Minari. Arriving at the festival with A24 and Brad Pitt’s Moonlight-backing production company Plan B attached, the Korean American coming-of-age tale already had considerable steam but it’s now been unofficially – and deservedly – crowned the year’s first truly great movie, one we’ll be talking about for quite some time.

It’s the fifth film from Lee Isaac Chung, using his own childhood as inspiration, telling a story specific in detail and universal in emotion. It’s the early 1980s and Korean parents Jacob (Steven Yeun) and Monica (Yeri Han) have decided to move their American-born children out of the city to live in rural Arkansas. Jacob has a plan to turn a large chunk of remote land into a farm, growing Korean vegetables to sell to other immigrant families. But Monica is unsure, wary of his lofty ambitions and concerned for what it might mean for their family. Their son David (Alan S Kim) has a heart murmur but is too preoccupied with causing mischief to care, while their daughter Anne (Noel Cho) is restless, with little to do in their country setting.

It’s a delicately told tale, quietly engaging us with the day-to-day minutiae of the family without coercing them into a more traditionally dramatic structure. Chung is focused on the small things, and it’s in these moments that Minari (named after a plant otherwise known as Chinese celery) really comes to life, whether it’s the kids making paper aeroplanes with the words “Don’t fight” as their parents quarrel, or the excitable squeal of Monica as her mother arrives from South Korea, having packed giant bags of chilli powder and anchovies. There’s authenticity at the heart of it all, and never once do we not believe in what we’re seeing.

A recent bugbear of mine is that too many artfully composed indies rely heavily, and sometimes exclusively, on grand music to sell emotion that might be lacking elsewhere. At last year’s Sundance, Emile Mosseri’s heart-grabbing score for The Last Black Man in San Francisco did far too much of the heavy lifting for a film that couldn’t match its epic feel. Later in the year, Trey Edward Shults used a stellar soundtrack in Waves to move us further than the film deserved. As Minari begins, so does a similarly hair-raising score, also from Mosseri, and it’s one that only increases in stature as the film progresses. But it’s not working in isolation: it reinforces and deepens the story, and as the finale arrives, its grandiosity suddenly matches what we see on screen.

It’s not as if the majority of the film is lacking in emotion, exactly. It’s just a quiet story, at times almost whispered to us. It’s richly textured yet restrained, and I was always engrossed, but it wasn’t until the last 15 minutes, as tragedy strikes, that I suddenly understood how attached I was to the characters, and how ingenious Chung’s slow build was, subtly enveloping us into the fold without us fully realising. It’s one of those masterfully structured endings that harkens back to so many of the film’s smaller moments, gently tugging at our hearts without relying on manipulation. At the screening I attended, there were few dry eyes.

Yeun, an always magnetic presence on The Walking Dead, has now become the show’s most successful breakout after his chilling turn in 2018’s Burning and an understated lead performance here. Like the film around him, it’s in the quieter interludes where he reveals himself, but the actor we’ll be talking about once the credits roll is seven-year-old Kim, a rare natural, mischievous and sweet, carrying a great deal of the story on his small shoulders. There’s also a strong, mostly comic role for Yuh-Jung Youn as the equally mischievous grandmother, a refreshingly unexpected character who delivers most of the film’s biggest laughs.

Minari offers an encouraging and engaging view of the immigrant experience while also recognising the hardships that go alongside. Chung’s nuanced portrait of a family figuring out their place in the world is both small and somehow rather grand, and after it continues to win over the remaining crowds here at Sundance, it’ll soon be winning you over as well.

  • Minari is showing at the Sundance film festival and will be released later this year


Benjamin Lee in Park City

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
The Father review – Anthony Hopkins drives devastating dementia drama
A brutal, trippy portrait of what it must feel like to lose your grip on reality boasts an Oscar-worthy performance

Benjamin Lee in Park City

28, Jan, 2020 @1:52 AM

Article image
Shirley review – Elisabeth Moss anchors darkly compelling literary psychodrama
A perversely entertaining take on a brief period of Shirley Jackson’s life gives the star one of her most daring roles to date

Benjamin Lee in Park City

26, Jan, 2020 @4:12 PM

Article image
Worth review – Michael Keaton excels in powerful 9/11 drama
The true story of the lawyer tasked with allocating funds for those who lost someone during the terrorist attacks in 2001 is brought to the screen with sensitivity and care

Benjamin Lee

26, Jan, 2020 @1:31 PM

Article image
Zola review – stylish viral tweet-based sex and crime caper
Fantastic performances, including breakout Taylour Paige, and confident direction from Janicza Bravo lift an often bumpy ride

Benjamin Lee in Park City

24, Jan, 2020 @11:57 PM

Article image
Sylvie's Love review – heartfelt period romance is a thrilling throwback
Electric chemistry between Tessa Thompson and Nnamdi Asomugha ignites this loving, lovely tribute to Hollywood melodramas

Benjamin Lee in Park City

28, Jan, 2020 @7:14 PM

Article image
Uncle Frank review – top form Paul Bettany lifts phony Alan Ball drama
A heartfelt performance from the British actor elevates an otherwise trite and frustrating story about an alcoholic gay professor in the 1970s

Jordan Hoffman in Park City

26, Jan, 2020 @1:57 PM

Article image
The Nest review – Jude Law and Carrie Coon fall apart in eerie 80s drama
The director of Martha Marcy May Marlene has delivered an accomplished follow-up focused on a family imploding in a gloomy house in Surrey

Benjamin Lee in Park City

27, Jan, 2020 @5:35 PM

Article image
The Courier aka Ironbark review – Benedict Cumberbatch heats up solid Cold War drama
The star turns in his most convincing performance for years in this sturdy story of accidental spy Greville Wynne and his role in averting nuclear crisis

Benjamin Lee in Park City

25, Jan, 2020 @10:59 AM

Article image
His House review – effective haunted house horror with timely spin
A Sudanese couple seek asylum in the UK but find something evil lurking in an accomplished debut from writer-director Remi Weekes

Benjamin Lee in Park City

30, Jan, 2020 @7:49 PM

Article image
The Last Thing He Wanted review – misfiring Anne Hathaway thriller
Mudbound director Dee Rees stumbles with a confused Netflix adaptation of Joan Didion’s political thriller about a conflicted journalist in the 80s

Benjamin Lee in Park City

28, Jan, 2020 @9:26 PM