People can have a weirdly upsetting reaction to things that are excessively adorable or beautiful. It is a phenomenon known as “cuteness aggression.” If you are prone to this condition, maybe watch Minari by yourself?
Set in 1983, writer/director Lee Isaac Chung’s film tells the simple story of a Korean family starting a farm in Arkansas. Jacob (Steven Yeun) and Monica (Yeri Han) spend their days sexing chicks, which sounds like Prince’s “to-do list” from the 1980s but actually refers to monotonously viewing baby chicken genitals. When they’re not answering “what’s up chicken butt?” they are living in a mobile home on a big piece of land they got at a good price because the last owner died by suicide. It’s cool though. Their new farmhand and Jesus enthusiast, Paul (Will Patton), spoke in tongues as a pseudo-exorcism, in between hauling a life-sized cross up and down a dirt road.
After quickly learning the difference between a tornado watch and warning, Jacob and Monica get busy duct taping their splintering marriage together. Adding to the stress of starting a farm on potentially cursed soil, their son, David (Alan S. Kim), has a heart defect that could kill him at any moment. Monica’s mom, Soonja (Youn Yuh-Jung), moves in so they can care for her while she helps care for the kids. Turns out that packing five people in a double wide while trying to grow Korean crops in Arkansas soil is not the key to a healthy marriage…
As much as Minari speaks to the Asian immigrant experience in specific, it is a subtle, nuanced, flawless, universal family drama first and foremost. It is as sweet, sad, and challenging as every real love story has ever been. Yeun’s and Han’s characters fight, sure, but they don’t engage in the kind of melodramatic emotional pratfalls that white dudes insert in every relationship movie they write and direct. It hurts more to see Monica’s eyes well up as she asks herself if she has any more support to give, to see Jacob refuse to accept he will not be harvesting what he thought.
Everything in Minari — every single damn thing — is perfect. Not good. Perfect. Emile Mosseri’s score is stupid brilliant. If you listen to it for more than 5 minutes, you’ll unconsciously start writing a check to a local public radio station. Lachlan Milne’s cinematography doesn’t reduce itself to garden porn; it is as stunning as a fire in the dead of night. Chung’s script is cute without being cloying and profound without preaching. Speaking of preaching, holy wow is it blissfully refreshing see the ever-evangelizing American, Paul, shown as a well-intended cuckoo instead of othering Korean immigrants.
Ultimately, Minari isn’t an explicit, awards-baiting message movie about intolerance against Asian communities. Neither is it a referendum on the American dream or the fallacy of salvation through labor. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t offer big ole piles of insights on all of that stuff. It just means that it layers those important issues on top of layers of family nostalgia and observations about love. It’s like a cinematic lasagna. Or, you know, a better comparison.
Forget cuteness aggression, try to wax poetic about a movie this perfect is enough to make anyone grumpy.
Grade = A+
Other Critical Voices to Consider
Kelechi Ehenulo at Set the Tape has one of my absolute favorite reviews in ages, including this amazing observation: “There’s an element of hope through hardship that symbolizes the pursuit of the ‘American Dream’. A lot can be said about that – the blind optimism that unifies people under the same belief system of opportunity and self-made accomplishment and achievement. In many respects, Minari can be thought of as a film about faith; faith in ourselves that can uproot an entire family, the faith we place in our relationships and the faith that’s in desperate need of repair.”
Wenlei Ma at News.com.au says “Moments of earwax plucking, sleeping on a bamboo mat in the heat and staring at a cup of putrid-smelling brown herbal tea are recognizable memories for many Asian immigrant families. But even for audiences outside of the diaspora, the specificity of those moments will still be relatable to their own cultural or family quirks. Universality through specificity has become a fashionable concept in filmmaking, but there is a lot of truth to it.
Roxana Hadadi at Pajiba says “Maybe our dreams are more than we can handle—or maybe they’re just more than we can handle alone. The beauty of Minari is in its consideration of what we choose to love, and what we choose to leave behind.”