In a different, better timeline (i.e. not ours), actor Steven Yeun (Burning, The Walking Dead) would be considered not just one of the best performers of his generation, but a movie star headlining a mix of big-budget blockbusters and intimate indie fare. Nominations and awards would, by necessity and demand, follow. All of that might still be in Yeun’s future, but at least for now, Yeun’s stellar performance in writer-director Lee Isaac Chung’s latest feature-length film, Minari, will have to serve as a reminder both of Yeun’s talents and a possible future that fully leverages that talent. The semi-biographical drama won both the U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize and the U.S. Dramatic Audience Award at last year’s Sundance Film Festival.
Minari centers on Yeun’s character, Jacob Yi, a Korean-American immigrant, his wife, Monica (Han Ye-ri), and their two precocious children, Anne (Noel Kate Cho) and David (Alan S. Kim). Jacob relocates his family from sunny Southern California to a newly purchased farm in Arkansas—a decision resisted to varying degrees by everyone—to fulfill his dream of owning a farm and growing Korean produce for Dallas-based grocery stores. For David, Chung’s obvious stand-in, relocating to Arkansas comes with both benefits and risks. There are obvious advantages to the open space and clean air but the young boy’s heart condition leaves him perpetually frustrated at what he can’t do, and his immediate family worried about his health.
To Chung’s immense credit, Minari avoids the usual conventions and cliches of an immigrant family relocating to a new state. Instead, he focuses on the complex, often contradictory dynamics of the Yi family, especially of Jacob and Monica—who repeatedly find themselves at odds over their concerns for David and the logistical challenges of starting a farm in an entirely new environment. They have to concern themselves with everything from where to get a steady water supply for the farm’s crops to convincing potential buyers in Dallas of the viability and sustainability of the Yi farm’s Korean-specific crops. Then there’s the arrival of Monica’s mother, Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung), the opposite of the kindly, ever-patient elder and an antagonistic foil to David. He sees Soon-ja as both a nuisance and a threat, especially after he learns he has to share his bedroom with her.
The filmmaker’s precise eye for detail, both in external world-building and the small, subtle interactions between a married couple teetering on the verge of separation, gives Minari a depth and breadth atypical of family dramas. No revelation or plot turn ever feels forced or contrived. They feel naturalistic—the product of individual and collective actions. In exploring the rich, textured lives of the Yi family, Chung manages to find the universal in specificity and specificity in the universal, an accomplishment that looks much easier than it really is.
In Yeun, Chung found the embodiment of Jacob Yi—an immigrant straddling cultures, languages, and desires. Even as Yeun’s Jacob falters, caught in the tangles and undergrowth of the American Dream, he’s never less than a sympathetic character—the product of deft, sensitive writing and Yeun’s instinctive talents as a performer. Even during what passes for confrontation in Minari, Yeun resists the urge to overplay Jacob’s inner turmoil, instead opting for a more nuanced approach.
While the film arguably belongs to Jacob’s journey and, by extension Yeun, he’s just the first among equals in a uniformly strong cast. From Alan S. Kim’s David (giving a performance that skirts precociousness without actually crossing over) to Ye-ri’s strong supporting turn as a woman torn between conflicting duties and identities, and from Noel Cho’s quietly engaging turn as Anne to Youn Yuh-jung’s sharp-edged performance as a stranger in a strange land, every performance is top-notch.
Minari is available on-demand beginning February 26.