Appropriately enough for a film set in the past and during a formative moment in life, Minari begins with a look in the rear-view mirror. The looker is David (Alan Kim), a seven-year-old boy enroute to a new life in 1980s Arkansas with parents Monica (Han Ye-ri) and Jacob (Steven Yeun), and sister Ann (Noel Kate Cho). They’re travelling from California, where Monica and Jacob worked as chick sexers; they’ll continue to do so while Jacob instigates the Yi family’s new venture, farming Korean vegetables on a large plot of land, which is also where the new home (an unmoored trailer) can be found. David and Ann were born in America; Monica and Jacob moved from Korea. A sense of the strangeness of new surroundings is present in this opening, blending point-of-view shots with long-lens close-ups of David curiously eyeing the green fields that pass his window, before the car pulls up in the middle of one, and he realises one of these fields is now the site of home.
Monica is not pleased by this. Early scenes provide a hint as to the arguments she and David will share throughout, but the suggestion that money is a worry isn’t hard to miss. It’s not long, either, before another wedge between the pair is set in place: the children’s grandmother, Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung, a Hong Sang-soo regular), moves in with them, causing David no end of consternation, since, in contrast to what he expects of a grandmother, she doesn’t bake cookies. Though he’s slow to respond to her affections, she is fiercely protective of him, like the family as a whole, since David has a heart murmur, and one of Monica’s worries is his safety, since they now live some way away from the nearest hospital. Religion is also fuel for disputes between Monica and Jacob, which the film locates both in the place of the nearest church (and the varieties of condescension to which its members subject the Yi family) and in the figure of Paul (Will Patton), a christian mystic (with a propensity to speak in tongues) who begins working in Jacob’s fields.
Throughout its lovely first hour, Lee Isaac Chung’s film contains moments of exquisite staging: during the Yi parents’ first argument, about the safety of the trailer, Monica drops her final line seconds before a power cut turns off the living room lights. Later, in the same space, all five are within the frame at the same time: Soon-ja, Ann, and David are watching TV; Monica and Jacob are in the background, separate but close by. Later still, Monica and Jacob occupy the same shot, but only one of their faces is in focus at a time—carefully motioning towards their own respective dramas, each drifting away from the other. But a tendency of Chung’s style works against the emotional claims these early moments of staging make. The late-Malick imitations (low-angle, mobile camera) of Jacob commiserating in his fields are pat; and the director often makes the jump between long shot or medium long shot and closer camera set-ups, at times commenting too much on the nature of the interaction, rather than letting it play out. Likewise, when Soon-ja presents her daughter with Korean chilli powder and anchovies, it’s one scene among many (Monica bathing Jacob; Monica talking with Ann) in which the interlocutors are placed within a frame within the frame, a choice that increases the pressure on the actors while estranging them from the work of the given scene.
About Minari I feel the exact reverse of what I feel about Lulu Wang’s The Farewell: a film without a single decent performance to its name, but nonetheless is admirably designed; Chung’s film is—with the exception of Will Patton—well-acted, but the design falters. It’s unfair to single out Alan Kim at the expense of strong support by Cho and Youn, but directors so often have no notion of how to temper the effusion of child actors, so the fact that this is a full, well-observed performance that ebbs and flows between affectionate curiosity and mean-spiritedness is something a feat. Yeun, too, is excellent: he’s a film star with character actor mannerisms, and an undeniable ability to hold a close-up. But Han’s performance is easily the best thing in the film. The way Monica’s insecurities and anxieties are signalled in her ever-so-subtle shift of stance; the way her face hardens in the seconds before another shouting match begins; the way her disbelieving stare unfixes the resolve of its recipient: all of her gestural effects go a long way to richly evoking the fact of Monica’s experience, her possession of a brutal combination of loneliness, boredom, and fury.
So why put such a lid on her expression? And why subordinate it to a closing stretch that, following difficulties in the farming process and ruptures in the family’s emotional texture, seeks to effloresce into feeling once again but doesn’t? With a style that undermines its actors, and a final half-hour that brushes past emotions it seeks to seize, Minari seems to me at constant odds with itself, but not in a way that speaks to the contradictions of experience: instead, it appears like a confusion about how to weigh one affective claim against another, about how to hold the characters. Minari is a strange thing: a film that’s cold and distant towards its subjects when it thinks it’s warm and close.