As “Minari” opens, the first chords of Emile Mosseri’s score drape themselves across the fertile, seemingly untouched landscape seen from behind the windows of a moving van. The music is simple, but undeniable: Teeming with life, it feels as though it could grow into anything, advance in any direction.
And when the film’s setting, emotional intrigue and characters gradually unfurl, blooming like so many delicate flowers, it becomes clear that the musical cue is a fitting metaphor for one of the most heartfelt, awe-inspiring and deeply moving films of the past several years.
Written and directed by Lee Isaac Chung — and loosely based on his own childhood — “Minari” follows the Yis, a family of Korean Americans who move from California to Arkansas in search of better jobs than those available on the West Coast.
Jacob (Steven Yeun) and Monica (Han Ye-ri), the parents of the family, have dramatically different viewpoints about the life they should be providing for their children, David (Alan Kim) and Anne (Noel Kate Cho). While Jacob cultivates a small farm to sell Korean produce to nearby grocers, Monica grows increasingly frustrated with his prioritization of the farm over the family. She tries to convince him that rural life is unsuitable for David, who has a moderate congenital heart condition.
The tension between Han and Yeun makes for some of the most gripping scenes of the film. The two actors, perfectly matched, possess a complete understanding of not only their own characters, but of their counterparts’ — they bring to life fully-fledged individuals, as well as a complex marriage.
They wield Jacob and Monica’s strengths and blind spots with equal magnitude and attentiveness, making it impossible to render complete judgements of their characters before the film ends. And even then, the audience is left scintillated and puzzled by the inner workings of the people they’ve just observed.
The complexity of the adults in “Minari” is cheerfully offset by Kim’s simple, yet dazzling performance as David, the young boy who receives most of the film’s focus. David comes across as authentically childlike, as if Kim isn’t acting at all — but the restraint he shows in David’s more animated moments make it clear that he is indeed in full control of his own performance. In moments of anger and joy alike, Kim exhibits an expressiveness rarely seen in actors his age.
David doesn’t start to fully open up, though, until Monica’s mother, Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung), arrives from South Korea to help the family adjust to their new home. Like a foul-mouthed, T-shirt-wearing Mary Poppins, Soon-ja descends on the trailer home to restore happiness and love to the Yi family.
The tension between the Yis prior to Soon-ja’s arrival is frustrating and saddening, as so many family conflicts are. But the levity Youn introduces to “Minari” lets the sun shine through these clouds. Nearly every line she delivers warrants a laugh, and her utter lack of self-seriousness both balances and enriches the film by clarifying the roles of the other characters and tying their performances together.
“Minari” sneaks up on you. For much of the film, it appears to be a coherent, well-shot and well-acted drama about a family struggling to achieve their version of the American Dream — a pleasant, but not wholly original entry. But before you realize it, the successes and failures of the Yi family begin to feel like your own. The struggles of these characters are so simple, yet so real, and the beauty of their effort to understand themselves and their circumstances is so moving that their soaring highs and crushing lows leave visceral impressions on the audience that remain for days after they’ve taken root.
Much like the herb that gives the film its name, “Minari” is unassuming, almost invisible at first. But as it grows, delicately planted in the hearts of its viewers, it blossoms into something vibrant and enticing. All it needs is a little attention, a little care and an outpouring of selfless love.
Matthew DuMont is a deputy arts & entertainment editor. Contact him at [email protected].