REVIEW: Minari (2021)

Steven Yeun as Jacob Yi in Lee Isaac Chung’s MINARI — Photo: A24.

Directed by Lee Isaac Chung — Screenplay by Lee Isaac Chung.

Though the act of spoiling a film or a show is, to put it mildly, frowned upon, I think the general idea is that a great movie cannot be spoiled, which is to say that it will still be great even if its plot or central surprise has been ruined for you. For a while, I think I actually shared that school of thought, and I can probably name a small handful of films that I love which were actually spoiled for me. Still, I am nervous when it comes to spoilers. I remember one of my friends once spoiled the end of a game in a series that I loved (and had introduced him to), and, as a result, I didn’t finish the game for quite some time. I guess, to me, it felt like it had been ruined for me, and, alas, when I finally finished the game it didn’t leave the same emotional impact on me that it appeared to have had on him.

For that reason, I was particularly peeved, when a comment made by Bill Maher reached me on Twitter a couple of months ago. On his show, Maher had, in an attempt to criticize the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, spelled out the premise of almost every film nominated for Best Picture at the 93rd Academy Awards. Maher felt that its line-up was too depressing. As my Twitter timeline was quick to point out, Maher basically spoiled the entire plot of Minari — from start to finish — with his derogatory single sentence summary, and that quote was now everywhere to be seen. I couldn’t miss that spoiler, and I really hoped that I would be able to get that spoiler out of my mind eventually, so when I finally purchased my Blu-Ray of Minari, I put it on the shelf and waited until I felt ready to watch it.

As I have now seen Minari, I have come to the realization that a spoiler — especially one so detailed as Maher’s — can be detrimental to your experience of watching said film. When I watched Minari, the spoiler kept on creeping up on me in the back of my head, and, as a result, my first viewing of the film felt frustratingly blunted. However, great movies can usually withstand spoilers, and Minari is a great movie. Putting aside the fact that I felt that Maher’s spoiler weakened the film’s immediate impact on me, I was, however, impressed by several elements of the film.

Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari takes place in Arkansas in 1983, where we follow the Yis. The Yi-family is a family of Korean immigrants that, at the start of the film, are on their way to their new home in rural Arkansas after having previously lived on the west coast of the United States. The father, Jacob (played by Steven Yeun), hopes to own land that he can pass down to his children, a garden that he can cherish, and he hopes that he can make a living by growing Korean produce.

However, Jacob’s wife, Monica (played by Han Ye-ri), has a lot of anxieties about their move. She is worried that she will be lonely in Arkansas, but, more than anything else, she is afraid for her son, David (played by Alan Kim), who suffers from a heart condition, as their new home is an hour away from the nearest hospital. Jacob and Monica don’t see eye-to-eye, but they also don’t have enough time to babysit their children, David and Anne (played by Noel Kate Cho), so they send for Monica’s mother, Soon-ja (played by Youn Yuh-jung), who David initially struggles to adjust to.

From my perspective, Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari feels like a film about identity. More specifically, I think there is quite a bit to be said about how David feels like he is stuck between two cultures, as he has to become accustomed to his grandmother and the traditions that he has to abide by. But it is also, in more ways than one, a film about planting seeds for the future. Obviously, the film is, on the surface, about Jacob trying to grow produce, but I also think it is about legacy and what customs you pass on to future generations.

As it is both sun-drenched and understated, I think Minari is an ‘American Dream’ slice of life drama that will charm most audiences, even though some people will definitely struggle with its deliberate pace and, frankly, with just how little actually happens in the film. Minari is a gorgeous film that is often paired with soft and beautiful music from Emile Mosseri. The cinematography and the score help to make you feel the warmth that at times also emanates from Youn Yuh-jung’s character. The other central performances are often nuanced but they always feel genuine.

Though I can’t deny that Maher’s spoiler did perhaps blunt the experience of watching the film for the first time for me, I must say that I was very impressed by so much of this film. In spite of how understated it is, the warmth of the film stays with you, I feel like you find a lot of attachment to these instantly relatable characters. Maher’s senseless spoiler did not manage to ruin what I thought was the most magical thing about the film, which is the genuinely wonderful central relationship between Soon-ja, the grandmother, and David, her grandson. Bill Maher couldn’t possibly ruin that.

8.5 out of 10

– Review Written by Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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