Minari (미나리 in Korean) is one of those rare instances where a film's title is perfectly poetic in its sensibility so that it works without unnecessary translations, it's also the first sign that director-writer Lee Isaac Chung is willing to introduce you to his semi-autobiographical tale by just simply showing the story he wants to tell. Set in 1980s, the Yi family consists of mom Monica (Yeri Han), daughter Anne (Noel Kate Cho), son David (Alan Kim) and dad Jacob (Steven Yeun) who relocates them from California to Arkansas in order to farm Korean goods as he is set out to chase his own American dream. Monica and Jacob's marriage is on thinner ice than he realises, the kids are trying to get accustomed to their new home and then Monica's mother Soon-ja (Yuh-jung Youn) arrives from South Korea to live with them and look after the kids as the parents are at work. Minari thrives and blossoms thanks to Chung's sharp specificity, on which the story relies on, as well as irrefutable chemistry of its cast.
If the devil is always in the detail then empathy lies in specificity and you can count by hand the few films every year that draw from a filmmaker's own experience to this extent, making the final piece of art ever so precious. Funny but sincere characterisation of Soon-ja, textures of their mobile home or handling of a secondary character like Paul (Will Patton) in a way that challenges your expectation of a religious farmer in the south, all of them are such precisely thought-out elements that you can't help but go along with the Yis. Also a contributing factor is composer Emile Mosseri's lovely score which helps keep the film's time jumps smooth. Another note about might very well be unintentional from Chung, Mosseri and sound mixer's position but the way that the score seems to be mixed in lower volume and intensity than usually in an indie drama, almost like there's only limited space in Yis' home for it, fits the story as it doesn't try to speak over the characters.
That's a great choice whether intentional or not because a lot of Minari's emotionality plays out in moments between dialogue with stares, every day routines or other non-verbal interactions between characters. Those are the moments where all five main actors really take you, the viewer, in and where Chung seems to get the best out of them. Kim and Cho's outings especially show a director's vision because kid actors are always demanding and these are also their first roles. Youn constantly elevates scenes without sacrificing tone which could be proof of experienced nuances while Yeun and Han are a joy to watch as they are able to match each other's level in every single scene together, even seemingly challenge each other to improve. There is slightly more focus on Jacob and David who are well realised and all but you get the sense that we even cut away from Monica and Anne much quicker - that I do think is the small misstep here. The family is what the story is about and when you shine less light on the female characters, it doesn't quite fulfil its potential, notably because Han and Cho clearly had even more to give. Good thing is that the film gives you plenty to chew on.
Smileys: Originality, whole cast's performances, directing, score
Frowneys: Minor flaws with female characters
Rebranding idea: Mountain ew!