WHAT I LIKED: 'Minari,' is a beautiful and tragic film about a Korean man Jacob attempting to live out his ambition of owning an American farm in the 1980s. He and his family arrive in Arkansas and come face to face with the very different American church, foods, media and customs. Jacob (Steven Yeun) - a stubborn dreamer and renegade who, like a true american archetype, never let his young eyes off the sky - wants to embrace it all as his new start, whilst his wife Monica (Han Ye-ri) - a far more reluctant realist - is less keen, especially after her mother moves in to provide a constant reminder of their home, and after the farm experiences setback after setback.
That narrative situation creates a fascinating divide between two ways of looking at one's culture (equally played out by their two children who absorb and reflect their parents' worries), and between the American dream and American reality, and that's a fascinating thematic conflict that will have you thinking throughout, but more than that it's a conflict that tests the characters in engaging ways. It drives a wedge between Jacob and Monica, and the children start acting up as they compete for their loyalties. It forces Monica to try her best to support and buy into her husband's dreams, and eventually forces Jacob to bring his eyes back down to the ground, and the result is an extremely effective and engaging character story.
But you only empathise with that because writer/director Lee Isaac Chung leaves so much of the talking to the camera and performances. There's little dialogue telling us exactly what the characters are thinking; just lots of beautiful exchanges and small moments where Jacob attempts to realise his dream on the dry, empty fields of his farm, or Monica tends to menial tasks in the quiet, isolated caravan. The camera knows exactly where it needs to be at all times; observing the expressions on characters' faces, the expanse of the land to show the impossibility of the dream, or observing the strangeness of certain aspects of American culture from afar with a lens that doesn't judge but merely witnesses the characters engage with it in their different ways. When you couple that with a set of truly masterful, nuanced performances, you've got yourself a highly engaging - and thought-provoking - little drama.
WHAT I DIDN'T LIKE: Once we've understood the characters' perspectives and witnessed their interactions with American culture, many of the scenes do little to develop or explore any of that further until the final act when they're forced to acknowledge that distance between dream and reality.
VERDICT: A film that puts two people on either side of a thematic quandary - between cultural perspectives, and between dreams and reality - which tests the viewer and the characters themselves, Lee Isaac Chung's 'Minari,' is a beautifully engaging and thought-provoking little drama.