“Minari,” the semi-autobiographical story of director Lee Isaac Chung’s childhood, is one of the most talked-about films of this awards season.
The biggest controversy surrounding the film deals with its nominations at this year’s Golden Globe Awards. That is because, despite the film being shot in America, directed by an American filmmaker and telling a thoroughly American story, it was nominated for best foreign language film — an award it ultimately ended up winning — because its characters mainly speak Korean.
That controversy certainly falls on the Golden Globes, and not “Minari.” Thankfully it likely won’t be the defining narrative surrounding the film’s release, as this Monday “Minari” was nominated for six Academy Awards: best picture, best director, best lead actor, best supporting actress, best original screenplay and best original score.
As one would expect with all of these nominations, “Minari” is a truly exceptional movie.
The most resonating aspect of the film is its honest, powerful and, at times, painfully real depiction of chasing the American dream.
The film’s story focuses on a Korean family that moves to Arkansas with the intent to start a farm and make a living for themselves. Jacob and Monica immigrated to the United States from Korea, and all they want is to provide a better life for their two children, David and Anne. However, they are not immune to the economic hardships of the 1980s, as Jacob struggles to get his farm off the ground and Anne is forced to work a dead-end job separating chickens by sex while her elderly mother watches the children at home.
“Minari” is a hopeful film about overcoming the challenges in one’s life, but it’s not overly candied or simplified in its storytelling. The film isn’t afraid to get into the nitty gritty of how difficult life in America can be, especially for an immigrant living in the South. It’s hard to watch at times because these characters are doing everything they can to pursue their dreams of being successful farmers while providing for their children, and yet they are bombarded with mountainous challenges.
What really cements the personal connection the audience forms with these characters are the performances given by the entire cast.
Steven Yeun, who plays the father Jacob, has probably the most screen-time of any character, and he is absolutely stellar. Yeun has already made a name for himself as a solid actor through his work in the once-popular series “The Walking Dead” and critically-adored films such as “Okja” and “Burning,” but his performance in “Minari” might be his best yet. He is electrifying in this film, even though his performance is incredibly subtle. He doesn’t strive for the grandiose emotions and staging that another actor perhaps would. Instead he chooses to portray Jacob simply as a man just doing what he can. It’s easy to see why Yeun received an Oscar nomination for this film, and if it weren’t for the all-but-determined posthumous victory for Chadwick Boseman in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” I would say he has a legitimate shot at winning the award.
“Minari” might not be an overly cheerful, star-spangled depiction of the American dream, but it’s one of the most genuine and moving showcases of it I’ve seen on film in a long while.
“Minari” paints a picture of a difficult yet evolving America. It shows the road that its central family travels on as the kind anyone could set out on. Though the real meat of the film is found in its subtleties, “Minari” is a monumentally moving film. It deserves so much more than being reduced down to just a “foreign language film,” and it’s good to see the Academy giving it the recognition it deserves.