Review: ‘Minari,’ It’s All About Family

Steven Yeun stars in director Lee Isaac Chung’s beguiling tale about a Korean family and their new farm in Arkansas during the 1980s.

Families come in all sizes, shapes, colors, and races. We know this to be true, yet the sight of a new, “different” family coming into our neighborhood nowadays can still stir old resentments and, sadly, old prejudices. 

How much more so, then, if a film rewinds to the 1980s and sets itself in rural Arkansas, as writer/director Lee Isaac Chung does in his beguiling new family portrait Minari. On the face of it, a film revolving around a Korean family moving to the South during a period of economic revival in “Reagan’s America” appears destined to depict harsh racial prejudices and unwelcoming neighbors. 

Jacob (Steven Yeun, best-known from TV’s The Walking Dead) is none too interested in any neighbors; his focus is the land. In Arkansas, real estate prices have made it possible for him to buy sufficient acreage for a working farm. While he and his wife Monica (Han Yeri) spend their weekdays doing the same type of mind-numbing manual labor that they did previously in California, Jacob spends every available hour developing the farm, leaving their children, David (Alan Kim) and Anne (Noel Kate Cho) to fend for themselves. 

Constantly exhausted, Jacob and Monica have little time for each other, much less their children, so Jacob eventually agrees to invite Monica’s mother Soonja (Youn Yuh-jung) to come from Korean to live with them. This helps relieve some of the pressure on Monica, but more especially helps provide companionship to young David, though he is initially resistant to a grandmother he has never known before. 

The adult actors all give performances that feel authentic and lived-in; they are not always admirable, which, truthfully, bolsters their believability. Chung, drawing from his own personal life and family experiences, details the characters distinctly and buttresses their strengths and weaknesses with events that look and feel vividly cinematic. The emphasis on the family pushes supporting characters firmly to the sidelines, which also feels and looks like the best way for the family, or any family, to succeed in their new circumstances. 

The interplay between family members tugs at the heart. It’s easy to root for the family, who may speak Korean but also convey the universal truth that family comes first, come what may, no matter what anyone says or does. 

The film opens in Dallas, Fort Worth and surrounding cities on Friday, February 12, 2021, via A24 Films. It will be available On Demand on February 26. For more information about the film, visit the official site.