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