Top Ten Movies of 2020 — Number Seven

I think it’s beautifully fitting that the year’s most poignant, insightful film about living in the U.S. is largely in a language other than English. Writer-director Lee Isaac Chung draws on his own history for Minari, the story of a family of Korean immigrants settling in rural Arkansas with visions of forging a life on the land. Jacob Yi (Steven Yeun), the family’s patriarch, is determined to extricate himself from the demeaning occupations usually afforded to the nation’s newcomers. He buys and starts working a farm, an endeavor that’s part of the longstanding lifeblood of the country. Slowed by inexperience and typical allotment of unlucky turns — and occasionally prone to questionable decisions based on cultural predilections — Jacob struggles to make the dream real, leading to uncertainty and tension that isn’t necessarily alleviated when his mother-on-law (Youn Yuh-jung, stealing scenes) journeys from Korea to move in to the modest trailer the family calls home. With precisely elegant visuals and a smartly tempered emotional approach, Chung makes a film of impeccable craft. Minari doesn’t come across as a universal story; it’s far too specific for that. Instead, its aching truths make the troubled, hopeful journey of the Yi clan highly relatable. It doesn’t require experience with the kinds of challenges faced by those on screen to understand the feelings that those challenges stir. In particular, the abiding aspiration at the core of the narrative is a defining characteristic if the vast majority on U.S. residents, barred from prosperity by power structures that rely on an eager underclass. Much of the dialogue of Minari is in Korean, and yet the film unmistakably speaks the bittersweet language of the American Dream.

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