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I am not someone who pays more than cursory attention to the Golden Globes, but to address one of its many controversies before the ceremony tomorrow: Minari, regardless of the high volume of spoken Korean, is an American film. Its nomination in the Foreign Language category struck a nerve for many, and with good reason – for something this invested in interrogating the American dream to be labeled ‘foreign’ is the latest in a lifetime of reminders for (non-White) immigrant families that they are often held at arm’s length from the melting pot. I suspect the industry politics that went into the actual categorization were far less profound, but the irony of it remains potent enough to see the rules for eligibility are due for an overhaul.
Partly inspired by the childhood of writer-director Lee Isaac Chung, the ‘80s-set Minari follows the Korean-American Yi family as they move from California to rural Arkansas to start the farm that has been patriarch Jacob’s (Stephen Yuen) lifelong dream. His wife Monica (Han Ye-ri), feeling misled by his promises and concerned about their young son David’s (Alan Kim) heart condition, is immediately skeptical, only agreeing to see out the experiment when her mother (Youn Yuh-jung) comes to live with them. The film captures the Yis’ struggle to acclimate and the strain it puts on their family, threatening to dissolve a marriage that has already started to fray.
Minari is what people mean when they talk about the value of representation in film, and not just because it will surely resonate with audiences that too rarely see their experiences on screen. This movie is full of observant, insightful moments that can only come from having someone behind the camera that intimately knows the story they’re telling, knows how scenarios as broadly human as a couple arguing or two boys becoming friends are tinged by the specifics of their situation. Chung’s film works on a number of registers – coming-of-age, family drama, immigrant story – because it makes the most of every scene, threading multiple strands together in a way that feels not only natural but true. Yuen and Han deserve a lot of credit for how they load each and every gesture with significance, ensuring we never lose sight of how the world around them weighs them down.
In terms of plot, Minari can be a bit of what I think of as a Murphy’s Law movie (almost anything that can do wrong, does), and I found myself occasionally distracted by how some scenes would sound if I tried to describe them. It’s not a case of taking on too much but of pushing too many of its narrative strands further than they needed to go, perhaps because it underestimates its own ability to involve the viewer. Chung stretches for the big emotional reaction with a loaded (and somewhat predictable) final act when a particular tracking shot of David (that I won’t spoil) is more than enough. More of a compliment than a complaint, really – and hopefully a sign of a filmmaker learning the strength of his storytelling muscles.