Arts movie review

What it takes to love

‘Minari’s’ depiction of family and faith breaks your heart and heals it 

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Steven Yeun stars as Jacob Yi in the 2020 film ‘Minari.’
Melissa Lukenbaugh, Courtesy of A24

Directed by Lee Isaac Chung
Screenplay by Lee Isaac Chung
Starring Steven Yeun, Han Yeri, Alan Kim, Youn Yuh-jung
Rated PG-13
Streaming and in select theaters Feb. 12

We seek faith to make sense of mysteries, like the inexplicable forces that drive people apart and bring them together. It’s hard to articulate why people fall out of love, why we push away the people who are closest, and why we choose some things over others. Minari, the stunning new film of director and writer Lee Isaac Chung, doesn’t try to explain these patterns, but simply shows them to be true. 

The film follows the Korean-American Yi family: Jacob and Monica, husband and wife, and their children Anne and David. The family is realistic, inspired by Chung’s own childhood memories. In an A24 Q&A where Sandra Oh interviewed the director and select cast members, Chung revealed that his process for the film started with writing everything he could remember from when he was as old as his six-year-old daughter. Based on Chung’s own experience, the film begins when the Yi family ends up in rural Arkansas on a large expansive field that Jacob hopes to turn into a farm and source of self-sufficiency. 

From the beginning, the cinematography is striking in its ability to be both sweeping and intimate, capturing the never-ending land and sky as well as the contained interior of the family’s home. The lush shots that look up and around at the rural landscape feel like a love letter from Jacob to this hopeful, new world where he so desperately wants to prove himself. The sense of place is furthered by the use of ambient sounds — birds chirping, grass whistling, TV droning in the background, even the squeaking of picked vegetables. These sounds of daily life form a barely noticeable, but ever present soundtrack. The subtly constructed sensory experience, unrushed and in real-time, makes the setting both homey and other-worldly. 

The camera often feels omnipresent in a way that is tied to the gaze of the children. David and Anne see everything: their parents fighting, the subtle racism and bigotry from the townspeople, the stress and hope of their new lives. Family dynamics are quickly understood when the children retreat and emerge again to throw paper airplanes with “STOP FIGHTING” written, and the film is peppered with similarly striking yet mundane memories. 

David, a spirited and charming child with heart problems, becomes the eyes that relive and expand upon writer Chung’s emotions. His immediate world — the small home in the middle of nowhere — is defined by his parents, who speak Korean with English mixed in, and older sister, who is haughty yet caring. Outside of their insular life though, there are unavoidable necessities: social interaction, financial stability, and a sense that everything will be okay. 

Monica, the mother, is especially frustrated by their living situation. Han Yeri delivers an electrifying performance with her piercing gazes and thoughtful caresses, balancing the roles of mother and wife that too often conflict. Her marriage with Jacob is imperfect: they are two people who “went to America and forgot everything,” driven apart by constant disagreements and differences in values. Shouting arguments scenes pit husband against wife, switching between close shots focusing on their individual pained expressions. Yet after these sequences, frames revert to showing all members of the family together, and life as a unit continues. The robustness of the Yi family is solidified by the cast’s all-around natural and cohesive performances.

Steven Yeun is on his way to becoming a household name, and his tortured, internal portrayal of Jacob, who embodies the American Dream and more, is remarkably personal. During the Q&A with Sandra Oh, Yeun described the emotional journey he underwent to play his character. Like David in the film and director Lee Isaac Chung, Yeun grew up in America with certain preconceptions and boundaries around the idea of his Korean immigrant father. “We remember our parents through their suffering or the ways in which we miscommunicate our love to each other,” Yeun described. This film, he said, allowed him to work past those barriers and see that in many ways, he is his father. Choking up, Yeun fell into a brief silence that resounded with a million unspoken thoughts. Collecting himself, the actor carefully declared, “The feeling of making this film is a reconnection.” 

The idea of reconnection is most poignantly realized through the character of Monica’s mother, grandmother to David and Anne, who joins the family in Arkansas. Almost too easy going, grandmother is constantly joking and never doing things that a “real grandma” should do, like making cookies according to David. She adds humor to the everyday scenes, and her unconditional love for David, despite his resistance to accepting her, manifests in some of the most entertaining and heart-wrenching moments of the film. Her role as a family member is somewhat external in how she pulls and pushes the nuclear family further and closer. 

The idea of faith ties to every experience of this adjusting family. Acknowledging the concept of love is not enough — the belief in it has to be as desperate as clinging onto ideas of luck or heaven or God. Family is not something rational or planned; it can be broken but still one. Seeing a film that understands that family is not about just a connection but rather a constant process of reconnection is as moving for the audience as it is for Yeun and moderator Sandra Oh, who are overcome with emotion while discussing the film. In focusing on the realness of one particular family’s story, Minari manages to capture a greater experience, beyond what Hollywood has been able to understand about Asian Americans and family before. It’s not a concrete idea, but it’s the beginning of a long-overdue healing.