Dir. Lee Isaac Chung. Starring Yeri Han, Steven Yeun, Alan Kim
With this movie still wearing that “early access” badge on Amazon, I feel duty bound to mention that spoilers are below.
The shot of the year in American popular cinema is in Minari. The Yis are all at the hospital, that one that has been too far away for Monica’s (Han) liking the entire movie, which by now is in its final act. The adults are watching the kids mess around a little down the hall. Both of them are seated, still sort of damp from the record breaking heat of the day, both against this colorless wall. Monica is a little bit out of focus, but Jacob (Yeun) is totally clear. He looks at them with his head on the wall entirely, his thick hair mushed up against it. His face is indulgent. He sees his children happy and that’s a source of joy for him, perhaps not as important in the end as selling his vegetables, but they matter to him deeply. For him, their happiness is its own reward And then, the shot racks ever so slightly, and now Monica’s face is totally clear and Jacob’s is just a little blurry. Monica is sitting up, her face tight with concern. Her impression of the scene down the hall where her children are very coolly blowing off steam is entirely different than the impression Jacob has. They’re there because David (Kim) has a heart murmur which they need to check on before a possible move. Earlier in the film she confessed to her mother, Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung), that she fears for David’s life because his heart could stop beating at any time. Jacob’s children are not toys for him—in one scene we watch him imperiously prepare to beat David for a misdeed—but Monica’s children are everything to her.
The camera lingers longer on her face than it did on Jacob’s, which never breaks that concentration, never gives up that worry. Jacob even leans back against the wall and looks in front of him for a little bit. Monica has an eye on her children through the entire shot, which is long and serious. In a wordless shot—at least until a “the doctor will see you now” style interruption from an unseen person—lasting about thirty seconds with no great flourish or beautiful backdrop, Chung has captured the heart of the film. Jacob and Monica have been at odds throughout Minari, occasionally fighting but for the most part keeping it cool with one another. This is not a revelatory shot by any means. It’s almost comically simple, the kind of thing a high schooler in an introductory class should be able to replicate. But for clarity of vision, for the acting that’s down to essentials, for the way it demands that you think about the unbearable gap between Jacob and Monica, this has to be 2020’s best shot from a mainstream American movie.
The cracks are in the marriage from the get-go. The mobile home that Jacob has chosen for the family is an immediate red flag for Monica. It is remote, it has wheels (which David thinks is kind of a fun touch), it has no stairs. Jacob has to hoist her up the first time in, one of the rare moments in this movie where Chung emphasizes some period piece bona fides through costume. Where should Grandma’s picture go? Anne (Noel Kate Cho) asks. Immediately, humorlessly, Monica responds that they can leave it in the box because they’re not staying. California, where they came from, calls to her constantly. The work they’re doing in Arkansas is the same as the work they were doing in California: chicken sexing. Males go in one bin, females go in another. Jacob has been doing that work for a decade, is fast enough to grab the attention of some of the other people in the sorting room, and is blowing through whatever savings he’d accrued and more in buying a tractor, borrowing from the local bank, taking on a holy roller named Paul (Will Patton, a slightly horrifying mixture of pentecostalism and Looney Tunes) as a hand. For Jacob, all that work in California was so he could push his chips into the table and work fifty acres. For Monica, all that work in California was so her children would have a better set of opportunities as adults. (Thus the work in Arkansas; she notes that only her husband is fast enough for California.) It’s not just that the housing was, presumably, better in California, or that there was a grocery store in a convenient place. It’s that there is safety in chicken sexing and there is an inherent, terrible risk in farming. Although the money scene for this conflict takes place outside a Korean grocery store in Oklahoma City, the one that is most potent takes place in the hospital, right after that shot I got all misty-eyed about up there. As I write this, it’s Oscar Sunday (“Oscar is given! Alleluia!” “Alleluia, he is given indeed!”). Yeun has his Oscar nomination, as does Youn, and Youn is something of an overwhelming favorite in her category. Han was passed over, which seems right; they so rarely give Oscar nominations to the people giving the best performances in the movie. Everything about the scene where she tells Jacob that she wants to go back to California ought to feel stereotypical, the immigrant mother who doesn’t care how hard she and her husband have to work or how much pride they have to swallow as long as their kids grow up healthy, safe, and with a better shot at making it. It’s not Chung’s screenplay which keeps that from happening. It’s Han, who is so serious, and whose performance is so incredibly consistent, who makes that conversation feel like something a real person would say as opposed to something a candidate for public office would say about his grandmother while giving the same stump speech four times a day. Jacob is a stubborn man, and it takes an act of God to make that stubbornness in him bow a little bit. But Monica is every bit his equal, without the power in the family or over the finances to make her stubbornness policy, but with selflessness and integrity that makes Jacob’s very American dream feel a little cheap and self-serving in comparison.
Minari premiered at Sundance, and you can tell. There’s definitely some Sundance to this movie, a real reliance on cute kids and funny grannies, a slight twist on a story we’ve seen many times before which makes the film feel instantly relatable but also fresh. I wouldn’t call Minari precious, not from stem to leaf, but I can understand why the film might come off that way for someone more grizzled than I am. Soon-ja really threatens to usurp this movie, and it turns out that only a stroke can stop her from taking over Minari entirely. Youn’s performance is so charismatic, and Chung’s screenplay keeps giving Youn room to work. Soon-ja proves what kind of grandmother she’ll be early on, when she is giving presents to David. One of them is a pack of cards that Monica is a little disappointed by. Mom, he’s seven, Monica says, to which Soon-ja replies, “If he learns now, he’ll beat all the other bastards.” There’s a certain impenetrable logic to that suggestion, but the “Grandma is a loose cannon” card has been played, and they keep playing it until her stroke. She turns out to be a fairly profane individual, disinterested in church and very interested in swearing up and down during a card game with her grandchildren. (One of the movie’s best moments with her is at the white church, during the offering. Desperate to feel a sense of belonging, Monica drops a hundred-dollar bill in the offering plate. Soon-ja surreptitiously fishes it out.)
Soon-ja’s English is not terrific, and a conversation about David’s propensity to wet the bed teaches her the phrase “Broken dingdong,” a Chekhov’s gun that takes even less time to fire than you’d expect it to take. Like all the other grandmothers who are the same age at heart as their goofy grandsons, Soon-ja loves wrestling and Mountain Dew. The cuteness factor is similarly off the hook with David, in part because Alan Kim is just a ludicrously cute little kid. He wears cowboy boots everywhere, he plays tricks when he shouldn’t, he spits tobacco juice into a cup, he wets the bed every now and then. There’s genuinely good work from both performers, and I think there’s a really lovely connection forged between Soon-ja and David that anchors us in the family while Jacob’s plants are growing and Monica fusses at how their debt is growing accordingly. While the parents are becoming more distant, the grandmother who’s never met her grandson and the grandson who is dubious that his grandmother could actually be a grandmother forge a bond which means something and gives stakes to the movie. The film does leave Noel Kate Cho out to dry a little bit in this formulation, which is too bad, because Cho is very good here in a small, slightly unforgiving role; like a chick which needs only a few more pecks to break through the shell, she only needs to roll her eyes a few more times to reach puberty. On the other hand, the movie would need to shoot for an entirely different tone if David’s older sister, who is responsible almost to a fault, were given nearly as much time as him, and I can appreciate why the movie centers on the relationship it centers on in its first half. It turns out to be a necessary guard against some gutting scenes in the final ten minutes, a shield against too much bleakness.