January 21, 2021

CINEMA | Growing 'Minari' – Steven Yeun Finds His American Dream

"Grandma smells like Korea."
Steven Yeun | Lee Isaac Chung's Minari A24
A24 / Elevation Pictures
Korean-American filmmaker Lee Isaac Chung (no relation) has made a startlingly moving and quietly emotional semi-autobiographical immigrant story set on a rural farm in 1980s Arkansas. Starring Steven Yeun (Chung's cousin by marriage) as a version of the writer/director's own farmer father, Minari tells a wondrously intimate tale of assimilating to the American Dream.

While mostly featuring Korean dialogue casually interspersed with naturalistic English by the film's bilingual characters, Minari's soft but curious glow makes it such a warm family drama of common problems on the path to growing up, maintaining a marriage, and building a farm. Chung impressively balances all the complications of being part of an immigrant community with gentle grace.

Co-starring Korean actress Han Ye-ri, Alan Kim, Noel Cho, and Youn Yuh-jung as Yeun's wife, young son, daughter, and mother-in-law, the Asian cast certainly feels like a real family with all the clear tells of balancing American life as outsiders rather sublimely. Their casually amiable chemistry makes all the nightly dinners, church gatherings, and mundane tasks particularly sweet in its drama.

Steven Yeun Alan Kim Lee Isaac Chung | Minari A24

Yeun is fantastic as a soulful father and husband trying to meet his cultural obligations as head of the family while navigating the growing sense of demasculinizing Asian men within greater western society as his young son unknowingly observes. Everyone in the cast feels pitch-perfect from Han's forthright wife/mother to the children stuck between worlds and the foul-mouthed but caring grandma.

So many fine details and subtle touches pepper Chung's portrait of burgeoning Korean-American identity in the '80s South. Its indelible quality of internal Asian conflict takes the characters so divergent but warm places. How Chung balances the lovingly fraught family dynamics makes Minari so particularly rich in its storytelling.

By being so very Korean to its core, Minari becomes one of the more unabashedly American films of the year. Its focus on telling personal stories of finding your own home and evolving families makes everything so universal. Yeun's star turn, surrounded by dynamic performances all-around, cement it as an indelible tale of what it is to be an American family.

Minari opens in theatres on February 12th.


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