By his own account, writer-director Lee Isaac Chung wanted to share his own history in a way that it wasn’t actually his history. In the most basic reckoning, there’s nothing especially unique about that approach. It’s the very definition of autobiographical storytelling. In Minari, Chung certainly draws on specific facts that align with his childhood, when his family moved to the Arkansas countryside to start operating a farm. But Chung specifically waited until he had enough distance from the experience that he could empathize with the figures in the story that were apart from him. There is a boy named David (Alan Kim) who is clearly the filmmaker’s avatar, but Minari doesn’t feel like its exclusively David’s tale. The resonant accomplishment of Chung’s film is that it belongs roughly equally to every character on screen.
The Yi family patriarch, Jacob (Steven Yeun), wants a better life that has been allotted for him as an immigrant from Korea in the U.S. It’s largely his determined dream that leads to the relocation with his wife, Monica (Han Ye-ri), and children, Anne (Noel Kate Cho) and David, in tow. As the family struggles in their new surroundings, Monica’s mother (Youn Yuh-jung) arrives to provide support, emotional, logistical, and otherwise. Chung’s largesse in giving each of these characters levels of completeness and clarity that makes the protagonists of their own stories naturally expands the truth at the core of Minari. It is a very specific immigrant experience that has the depth to make it a reasonable stand-in for all immigrant experiences, awash in the mixed emotions that come from gleaming promise and wounding disappointment operating in tandem.
Chung crafts the film favoring poetry and subtlety. That requires a lot from the actors, who need to draw deeply to express the shifting beings of these character. Yeun and Youn make the strongest impressions — Youn is gifted with the opportunity to play scenes with a touch of crackling mischief — but it is truly a collective triumph, each performance reliant upon and enriched by all the others. There is humor, there is poignancy, there is pathos. Even the most dramatic plot turns have the plainness of lives lived rather than fiction concocted. There’s perhaps no clearer sign that Chung succeeds in honoring the path that led him to Minari than the film is powerfully honest without being bound to a past. Chung looks backward to make a film that strides forward.