Is the American dream enough?

Philadelphia Film Festival 2020: Lee Isaac Chung’s ‘Minari’

3 minute read
Family views: Alan Kim and Steven Yeun in ‘Minari.’ (Photo by Melissa Lukenbaugh, courtesy of A24.)
Family views: Alan Kim and Steven Yeun in ‘Minari.’ (Photo by Melissa Lukenbaugh, courtesy of A24.)

An opening shot of a family driving up a dirt road, surrounded by sun-kissed fields and accompanied by an orchestral score, establishes a hopeful tone. Based on writer and director Lee Isaac Chung’s own childhood, Minari, screened at this year’s Philadelphia Film Festival, follows a Korean family’s adaptation to rural life in Arkansas in the 1980s.

The film has already garnered top prizes at the Sundance Film Festival, as well as Oscar buzz for Steven Yeun’s performance, so I anticipated a relationship-driven, emotional tour de force. However, despite the bucolic atmosphere, touching moments, and committed performances, Minari is an aesthetically pleasant and safely cathartic cinematic experience.

Invested in the farm

Seven-year-old David, played by Alan Kim, provides the film’s viewpoint. We follow his family, led by stringent father Jacob (a captivating Yeun), who is determined to grow a farm on a plot of land to support his family. The evolving relationship between David and his exuberant and unconventional grandmother, performed by Youn Yuh-Jung with charm and playfulness, is the heart of the film.

However, other relationships and character objectives generally feel shallow. Jacob and his discontented wife, Monica (Han Ye-Ri), are gripping as a couple whose marriage is quickly unraveling. However, the reasons for their ongoing fights are vague, leaving us questioning what’s really at stake. Jacob’s relationship with the eccentric war veteran-turned-farm-worker Paul (an endearing Will Patton) never develops into anything more than a worker-boss dynamic. However, the tenderness and patience of the film keeps us invested, rooting for Jacob’s farm.

A comfortable creed

The cinematography is serene, flooding many shots with the warm palette of golden-hour sun piercing through growing crops. But however charming the natural environment is, we feel distant from our characters—Chung’s camera never gets too close. This lack of intimacy parallels a notable absence of risk in the film, which is surprising considering the meditation on complex themes like identity, assimilation, and family dynamics.

The audience stays comfortable throughout: even the racism and othering that the family experiences is playful and easily shrugged off, as when the family attends church for the first time and a young white boy asks David why his face is flat (the boys eventually become close friends). The light tone, perhaps due to David’s young perspective, allows us to easily digest the plight of this family, but perhaps at the sacrifice of a more honest reality.

The film leaves you with the optimistic feeling that you can thrive in an adverse environment if you stick together and persevere. Maybe the wild success of Minari lies in this uplifting message. This idyllic portrayal of the American dream is a reminder that family, community, and hard work make anything possible, a creed more palatable than the real sociopolitical climate we’re living in. It is a comforting message, and maybe that alone is enough.

Image description: A photo from the film Minari. It shows a Korean father, played by Steven Yeun, and his 7-year-old son, played by Alan Kim, in profile. They’re both in a sunny field, looking at something outside the frame. The father is kneeling with one arm around his son. The son wears a yellow tank top and the father wears a yellow plaid button-down and a red baseball hat.

What, When, Where

Minari. Written and directed by Lee Isaac Chung. Screened online as a part of the Philadelphia Film Festival, running through November 2.

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