Director: Lee Isaac Chung
Screenplay: Lee Isaac Chung
Starring: Steven Yeun, Han Ye-ri, Alan Kim, Noel Kate Cho, Youn Yuh-jung, Will Patton
Year: 2020
Country: USA
BBFC Certification: PG
Duration: 115 mins

A few months back when the major awards contenders for this year started to snap into focus, I watched David Fincher’s Mank. I thought it was terrific, nicely written and amusingly performed, and came away thinking it might be one of my frontrunners for Best Picture Oscar. But across the next few days, something strange happened. I found the film wasn’t sitting right with me. As I rolled it around in my mind, it seemed to diminish in every sense. In my head, the script I had found almost poetic started to seem forced; the performances I had enjoyed so much now seemed over the top and awards-hungry; the crisp black and white cinematography seemed like an affectation. I couldn’t quite put my finger on why the change took place, so I went back and watched Mank again. While I still enjoyed it second time round, I definitely found it thinner and less satisfying. When it was over, I discretely altered my 4.5 star rating on Letterboxd to a still healthy but less effusive 3.5.

I didn’t think that much about Mank again until this week when I watched another major awards contender, Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari. The reason Mank came to mind was that once again I found myself turned a film over in my head for days afterwards but this time round with the complete opposite effect. While Mank seemed emptier the more I thought about it, Minari seemed more subtle, more perfectly judged and more full of ideas the longer I dwelt upon it. While I have yet to watch it a second time, I know that this is a film that will only improve with subsequent viewings. And, for me, it’s already a five star film after the first watch.

Minari follows the story of Jaboc and Monica Yi, a Korean American couple who, at Jacob’s behest, move from California to rural Arkansas where Jacob hopes to start a farm growing Korean produce to sell to Dallas vendors. While Jacob is optimistic, Monica is disappointed with their new home and problems in the couple’s marriage are further exacerbated by the constant worry of their young son David’s heart condition, unpredictable weather, unreliable vendors and the arrival of Monica’s mischievous, unpredictable mother.

Minari’s tale is a simple one but it is rich in metaphor, minutely observed details and touches of dry humour. It is this richness which makes it a film that will surely reward multiple viewings, and with its leisurely pace and sumptuous photography of green rural landscapes, it is certainly a film that invites them as well. Although the plot is minimal, it is well drawn and builds convincingly to decisive moments of dramatic tension. While Mank couldn’t stop itself talking, Minari gives the viewer plenty of moments to breathe and the freedom to fill in the gaps. The film is further boosted by excellent performances all round, although whether their relative unshowiness will amount to Oscar nominations remains to be seen. Particularly moving and strongly depicted is the growing relationship between David and his grandmother, a plot strand that provides much of the film’s humour but also some of its most dramatic beats. Also providing humour and heart is Will Patton as Paul, a religious neighbour whose bold personality at first seems amusingly at odds with the characters around him, before his place in the story begins to become clearer.

The subtlety and minimalism of Minari make it a difficult film to talk too much about. This is a film that benefits from the viewer knowing little about it going in so I’m eager not to give too much away here but Minari absolutely lived up to its quickly acquired reputation as a quiet masterpiece. It is a film I’ll definitely be watching again and again and I look forward to seeing more in it each time.

Minari is available to stream through A24 from 19 March 2021.

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