"Chung knows that drama-is within the hearts and minds of characters..."

Making a Home in the Heartland

(031321) The husband wants to be his own boss. The wife just wants to make sure the family is safe and secure, physically and financially. The son has a heart condition that prevents him from really enjoying his childhood, and the daughter worries that the kids in school will think her family is poor. The grandmother is, well, pretty content wherever she is, as long she has her playing cards and an opponent to call her favorite curse word.

We get a sense of all of these characters—their hopes and dreams, what drives them, their strengths and their shortcomings—in Minari, writer/director Lee Isaac Chung's straightforward but complex drama about a Korean family that tries their hands at—and try each other over the course of—starting a farm. The film doesn't have much by way of plot, but it doesn't need it. Chung knows that drama isn't in what happens or how many external complications and obstacles can arise over the course of the story. It's within the hearts and minds of characters, who seem like normal and real and wholly relatable people, and, more importantly, how those desires and thoughts clash with other characters, possessing their own wants and needs. It's a basic concept, of course, but think of how many movies seem to go out of their way to avoid such a basic truth about drama. We often get spectacle or melodrama or some gimmick of a premise, but Chung's film is pretty daring in how absolutely spare it is.

There's a family, going about their daily lives, and there's a farm in rural Arkansas—just a big patch of land, where the husband/father sees only possibility and the wife/mother sees only the potential for financial ruin. Their home is an old trailer, sitting atop wheels and concrete blocks. Everything about these people and their situation is so average that the scenario is instantly recognizable. It draws us in immediately.

Jacob (Steven Yuen) and Monica (Yeri Han) used to live in California with their two children, David (Alan Kim) and Anne (Noel Kate Cho). There, they identified the sex of newly hatched chickens. It was enough to get by—to pay for rent and the bills and all the other necessities. Jacob wanted more, though, so he bought acres upon acres of land in Arkansas.

The story begins with the family on the road—Jacob in a moving truck and Monica in a station wagon with the kids. The drama, meanwhile, starts immediately upon arriving at the family's new home. Jacob looks at the land with a smile full of optimism. Monica can't get past the view of their new house, which doesn't even have any stairs for them to get through the doorway.

Chung subtly allows us to take a side in one shot—the first time we see the interior of the house, with Jacob and Monica turned away from the camera. Some will think that it's not nearly enough, and others might think that, under the circumstances, it's not half-bad. As long as one realizes there's a big gap between those two reactions, the full depth of the drama here should be apparent.

It might seem simple—basically a disagreement between a husband and wife over the course of their family's future. Chung, though, spends the entirety of the film establishing and exploring how much this disagreement tells us about these characters and how deep the divisions within these relationships actually go.

For Jacob, this is not just an opportunity to achieve the American Dream in the 1980s. It quickly becomes an obsession, strongly connected, not only to the financial future of his family, but also to his severe sense of pride (It starts showing itself quickly, after the new farmer rejects the help of a man with a divining rod to find water on his own). It might be more about pride than anything else, if his pronouncement that, if his plans fail, Monica can leave him, taking the kids with her, is any indication. That statement isn't said in anger or despair. Jacob says it so matter-of-factly that it seems to sting his wife even more than if it had an emotional foundation. The coldness chills her to the core.

Monica keeps working with chickens (although her husband is the faster identifier, who could make more money doing it but works fewer hours in that job), keeps trying to get Jacob to see how miserable and worried and alone she is, and keeps making the point that David, their young son with the heart condition, might be too far away from the hospital if anything were to happen. Jacob finally invites his wife's mother Soonja (Yuh-jung Youn) to come from Korea and live with family, thinking the arrangement will somehow solve all of Monica's problems.

With all of this in place, Chung's screenplay simply allows these characters to continue in their ways, observing with compassion and without any judgment as the characters become more firmly planted in their positions and the familial divides expand. On the lighter side, David (played with quiet and endearing naturalism by Kim) gets into a little feud with his grandmother (delightfully and then, after a sudden turn, tragically played by Youn with determined grit), and Jacob's local farmhand Paul (Will Patton), a devoutly religious man, attempts to convince his boss that faith will bring a good harvest.

On the heavier side, though, we watch as this marriage slowly crumbles (Yuen and Han play the couple as flip sides of the same coin—quietly allowing all of the pressure to build until there's nothing left to be said between the two), as Jacob's stubbornness gets in the way of providing for his family, and as financial and health concerns continue to pile atop each other. We can see, understand, and sympathize with both of these characters' positions, and the devastating thing is watching those divisions reach a stalemate, in which only one option for their relationship remains.

Everything about the foundation of the story of Minari is simple, but Chung builds and builds upon it. There are important questions here, primarily about how we can and should define success. The only ones that genuinely matter, though, are about these characters, their lives, and what fate they are willing to make as individuals and, hopefully, as a family.

Directed & Written by:     Lee Isaac Chung
Starring:     Steven Yeun, Yeri Han, Alan S. Kim
Released:     021221
Length:     115 minutes
Rating:     Rated PG-13 for some thematic elements and
 a rude gesture

MINARI © 2021 Plan B Entertainment
Review © 2021 Alternate Reality, Inc.

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