2021 Oscar Reviews: Minari

For the past several years, I’ve attempted to watch as many Oscar-nominated films as possible, and for the past two years I have written reviews of each film and posted them to this blog. Alas, I always run out of time and cannot see everything. This year’ ceremony has been delayed and the nominees are yet to be announced, giving me a chance to get an oxymoronic late jump-start on this year’s anticipated nominees. Today we cover…

Minari

[6 nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Actor (Steven Yeun), Best Supporting Actress (Youn Yuh-jung), and Best Original Score]

I didn’t know much about this film before watching it. I knew it’s a favorite for the big prize. I know it had to compete at the Golden Globes as a Best Foreign Language Film rather than as a Best Picture, despite being an American film. And I knew it was about a Korean family that movie to rural Arkansas. And that was pretty much it.

This movie wasn’t exactly what I was expecting. I think I’d assumed that “Korean immigrant family moving to rural Arkansas” would be a film about culture clashes; about immigrants struggling to fit in while racing prejudice. There was a little of that in this film, but not much. And I was also, for some reason, thinking the film would be kinda funny and uplifting. I think maybe I got this impression because I’d heard something about things lightening up when the wacky grandma moves in. A while there were some fun moments (mostly involving the grandma, as advertised), the majority of this film is a big huge tearjerking downer. That was the biggest surprise for me. Finally, I thought that “a movie about a Korean family moving to Arkansas” would be a story about what it’s like to be Korean in Arkansas. It was not. It was a family about a family trying to start a farm. They just happened to be Korean, and they happened to be in Arkansas.

A lot of the content, especially earlier in the film, resonated strongly with me on a personal. My first thoughts were of my mother’s immigrant family, who followed a very similar path to Minari’s Yi family. After years of working in low-prestige job’s to save up, my grandfather followed his dream of starting his own farm in rural Michigan. My immigrant mother was a bit of an outsider to the rural schoolkids around her, and her immigrant family sought out a local Latvian church community for a sense of belonging and identity (they were more successful in this than the Yi family, who discover the nearest other Koreans live in a town far away and all dislike the Korean churches that were the center of community for the Yis in their previous American hometowns).

The next thing that resonated for me was my own childhood growing up in the 80’s in Northern Virginia, an area with a very high Korean population. As the film moved along, I found myself constantly comparing the Yi’s 80’s experience with those of my Korean classmates. There was much that I recognized from my friends’ homes back in the day, and the great 80’s details (I think I had the exact same camera as the Yi’s) just added to the effect. In high school, I participated in a discussion group with other multi-cultural girls that a teacher was running as part of her graduate studies. If I recall correctly, the group was almost entirely Korean (an Indian girl and I were the only exception). We talked a lot about what it was like growing up and being just a little different from everyone around you. Based on my recollections of those friends’ stories, I feel Minari did a good job subtly capturing those subtle moments of culture clash and discomfort without hitting us over the head with it (as I’d expected). We see it most clearly when the Minari’s visit a local church. Nothing overtly racist, and folks were all friendly, but… you could just feel it. It’s not what the movie was about, but it was just always lingering there in the background. Kinda, I assume, like real life.

So the film features an immigrant family searching for their American dream (like my mom’s family), and it features a Korean family (like my childhood friends) in a very non-Korean place. But what the film is actually ABOUT is a family struggling to survive. This is very, very sad subject matter. It starts lightly enough; the family pulls up to a trailer, and the mom is visibly shocked and upset that her husband made this major and terrible decision for the rest of the family. Ha ha, fun stuff! Only… not really, right? This place is a shithole. We never do a nice lighthearted acceptance of our kooky ol’ house, oh we’re so zany and fun! No, they still live in a shithole. That doesn’t change. I won’t spoil all the specific twists and turns, but I will say that the movie stays depressing as hell the whole time. And every time we think there’s some sort of light at the end of the tunnel, there isn’t. Everything just sucks all the time. It’s the worst. So if you’re hoping for a charming inspiring tale about a family pulling through with teamwork and making it against all odds with a smile on their face, this is NOT the movie for you! You’ve seen the poster where the family’s all holding hands and smiling together in the sunlight? Seems sweet, right? NO! WRONG. THIS MOVIE WILL RIP OUT YOUR HEART AND STOMP ON IT. Ugh ugh ugh.

Anyway, all that being said, the movie was pretty good. There was plenty that was done right. The performances were all spot-on, The grandmother (played by Youn Yuh-Jung), in particular was pretty spectacular, and I’m happy to report that, in the time between me watching the movie and me writing this review, she’s been officially nominated for a much-deserved Oscar. And Will Patton impressed me playing the local religious weirdo who helps out on the farm. The film was nicely shot. The script made me smile because it contained all the masterful subtlety that is so lacking in many of the other films I’ve reviewed thus far. I very much appreciated seeing a great film featuring a seldom-represented community. In a country made up of so many immigrants and immigrant communities, this film is important. When My Big Fat Greek Wedding came out, I think almost all of us multicultural folk related heavily, despite not being Greek. “That thing about Greek school! That’s just like Latvian school!” etc. Minari is similar, in that I think many immigrants and their descendants will be able to see some of themselves in the story.

Now was it Best Picture good? Meh, I dunno. I went in assuming this would be a frontrunner, and I don’t personally feel that it is. it’s tough to put my finger on what, exactly, is lacking. Maybe I just didn’t feel like it was actually about anything? Maybe the story just wasn’t interesting enough to me? Or maybe I didn’t think it was different enough from any other indie tearjerker to deserve elevation? I honestly don’t know. It was fine. Nothing actually wrong with it. Just didn’t wow me, I guess. And not as good as Nomadland or Trial of the Chicago Seven.

[NOTE: This film was viewed shortly before the Oscar nominations came out. I’ve tried to write this review as I would have done before I knew the real nominees, so it more evenly matches the other reviews thus far. In a future cumulative post I will comment on the nominations themselves.]


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