Director Lee Isaac Chung's semi-autobiographical Minari harkens to the intricacies of Richard Linklater's coming-of-age tale Boyhood with a bit of John Ford sentimentalism a la How Green Was My Valley. Yet, in some ways, this one feels more guided by America's literary tradition than its cinema (there are evident echoes of Steinbeck and Morrison). What emerges is far from a repeat of the author's past—Minari is an astonishing work of art capable of standing on its own.
In the 1980s, a Korean-American family led by Jacob (Steven Yeun) and Monica (Han Ye-ri) relocate to rural Arkansas to start a farm. Told from the perspective of 7-year-old David (based on Chung himself; Alan Kim), Minari often finds Monica exclaiming "It's not what you promised!" in response to Jacob's increasingly obsessive bucolic dream. As the family splinters, Monica enlists her mother Soonja (a scene-stealing Youn Yuh-jung) to help alleviate the tension, but as pressures mount, isolation spreads.
Unlike other films in the realist movement, Minari avoids artificial nostalgia spurred by endless panoramic nature shots. Basing the bulk of the narrative on his own memories, Chung gives himself the breathing room to better emphasize the film's production design, score, costuming and other oft-disregarded cinematic elements. The smaller things add up in Minari, exchanging flashy cinematography in favor of building a child's world with honesty.
Yuh-jung dominates every time she's on screen as the grandmother, while Ye-ri's bold decisions in portraying the complexities of a torn mother unsure how to save her family are nothing short of phenomenal. Still, it's the overall cast that works so well together in making Minari a real standout even a year after wowing crowds at Sundance. In a world of superheroes and CGI movies about feeling feelings, films like this rarely get in front of the number of eyes they deserve, which is a pity; this one's a triumph.
+ Stellar ensamble cast; brilliant score
– Slow pacing might not work for everyone