MINARI. There was a time, in the ever receding past, when I was fascinated by and cared about awards, or at least the Academy Awards. I've since come to see them as a self-congratulatory popularity contest that frequently attempts to right the cultural and economic wrongs of its own capitalist enterprise with too-little and too-late accolades. Cynicism but not unfounded. Why does it matter? Well, it doesn't. But the Golden Globes having just passed in all their almost universally acknowledged silliness and irrelevance, we find ourselves in whatever version of awards season these years have wrought. And so again we receive the gifts and curses of the day.
A couple years ago, the real contenders — the serious stuff — would have made their way into theaters just before year's end to qualify for awards consideration and remain fresh in the minds of Academy voters. And so the end of fall and the onset of winter were traditionally the hallowed time of prestigious festival favorites and stuffy studio dramas of pedigree and moral certitude. Of course, out here in the cinematic wilderness (though we are fortunate compared to those in many corners), those lauded and dubiously significant releases would generally trickle slowly in, sometimes bypassing us altogether until they were available to rent (physical media!) or months later in the equivalent of a second run. Denial being a powerful opiate, especially when taken collectively, the movie industry has kicked its timeline down the road a little, moving awards season forward a few months, temporarily relaxing some of its rules for qualification and, perhaps most reluctantly, finally making available to us, its fawning public, the Movies that Matter.
Which is perhaps an unfair way to contextualize Minari, which, like Nomadland (reviewed last week) had been much talked about but essentially unavailable to the moviegoing public. It's been an even longer run for Minari, having premiered at the pre-plague Sundance Film Festival more than a year ago, from which point on it has been referred to, among certain circles, in hushed and deeply reverent tones. And that is not unfair — the movie deserves the praise. Perhaps it's more unfair of me to allow my reception and perception of it to be colored by the self-protectiveness, greed and cynicism of the industry that hoarded it against the hope of a broad theatrical release and greater profitability. (That the Golden Globes placed this American movie in the foreign-language film category is another instance of the industry being back on its bullshit.) I suppose I should count us lucky to be able to see it at all, under the auspices of the internet, the nemesis the movie industry has reluctantly conscripted as a quasi-ally.
To deeply rural 1980s Arkansas, from Korea by way of California, arrives the Yi family. Jacob (Steven Yeun) has parlayed his proficiency as a chicken sexer into savings substantial enough to buy a plot of land. It is his dream, his personal imperative, really, to make a go of it farming Korean fruits and vegetables to sell to the ever-growing emigre population. Monica (Yeri Han), deeply skeptical about the whole proposition, is doubly displeased by the fact that their new house has wheels under it. A city girl at heart, she is pained by the lack of community, economic opportunity and access to adequate medical care for their younger child David (Alan S. Kim), whose heart murmur is a source of constant concern. David's older sister Anne (Noel Cho) has, on the face of it, perhaps the easiest transition of the four.
As an olive branch, Jacob eventually agrees to move Monica's mother Soonja (Yuh-jung Youn) from Korea to live with them. At the outset, this complicates things more than it simplifies them. David is distrustful of his grandmother, finding her loud, cantankerous and unbecoming his definition of a grandma. With time, though, they develop a bond that allows him (at 7) to start being a kid, to live outside of fear and imposed limitations. Meanwhile the farm struggles on, with Jacob and Monica toiling endlessly with the chickens while he also tills the land and searches frantically for a reliable water source for the crops, aided by the odd but well-intentioned Paul (Will Patton), who speaks in tongues, bears a literal cross on Sundays and is undyingly loyal to the Yis.
Minari achieves a sort of universality in its specificity; as much as it is completely about the experience of a particular family in a very particular place, Chung's attention to detail, his unerring patience as an observer and storyteller, help him explore fundamental notions of family — support, strife, uncertainty, the simultaneous opposed need for security and achievement — with a spare but beautiful cinematic language that transcends individual experience.
John J. Bennett (he/him) is a movie nerd who loves a good car chase.