Writer and director Lee Isaac Chung’s “Minari” is among the most emotionally honest movies I’ve seen in recent memory. In telling its story of Korean immigrants settling in Arkansas in the 1980s, where the father starts a family farm at the expense of his relationship with his wife and children, the movie intently and elegantly sidesteps nearly every temptation to sink into sentimentality or histrionics, while never feeling anything less than warmly empathetic and dramatically riveting. It’s also one of the best movies about the immigrant experience ever made and almost certainly the most resonant Asian American immigration story to make it to film.
I’m pretty certain every assertion I’m making here is objectively true even though this movie fired off my subjective biases in a major way. So much of this movie felt familiar to me, from the experiences of growing up in Reagan-era America, to the family’s uneasy assimilation into local culture, to the younger characters’ unwitting estrangement from their own identities. It felt almost exactly like my story, except that in so many ways it’s not: my family emigrated from Asia at roughly the same time as the semi-fictional family in “Minari,” but we came from Vietnam and not South Korea; we settled not in rural Arkanasas but in emphatically suburban Maryland; and my parents weren’t farmers but office workers.
That’s the magic of this movie though; it accomplishes that amazing trick of taking something incredibly specific—a semi-autobiographical account of Chung’s own life—and making it relevant and emotionally real for many, many people. There’s a moment in the first half of the film when a character starts crying at just the scent of food—not even food, an ingredient for cooking—from her homeland, and I have no doubt that it’s elicited countless tears from countless viewers hailing from dozens of countries all over the world. This is a wonderful movie.
“Minari” (2020) ★★★★ Sidesteps just about every opportunity to indulge in melodrama or histrionics, and just focuses on its story with a clear-eyed emotional authenticity that’s deeply stirring.
“Inception” (2010) ★★★★ Rewatched, with my daughter. Despite all the criticisms of Nolan’s focus on structural highjinks, the emotional beats work every time.
“Support the Girls” (2018) ★★★½ Deeply compassionate story of dealing with the misery of being very good at a job you can’t stand.
“Faces Places” (2017) ★★ Despite Agnes Varda’s charms, this is a hugely overrated cross between a reality television show and an electronic press kit.
“Judas and the Black Messiah” (2021) ★★★ Electric performances from the two leads can’t quite give form to this frequently over-scoped historical drama.
“The Passion of Anna” (1969) ★★★★ Hauntingly photographed foray into typical Ingmar Bergman territory, where solitude is the only answer to humanity’s inherent awfulness.
“The Lego Batman Movie” (2017) ★★★ Rewatched. I didn’t like this much the first time but there’s so much packed in here that it rewards repeated viewings.
“The Sword in the Stone” (1963) ★★★ Little more than an excuse for a series of excessively playful animated excursions, but amply engaging nevertheless.
This is the latest roundup of my monthly movie consumption. You can also see what I watched in January, in all of 2020, in 2019, in 2018, in 2017, and in 2016. You can also always keep up with what I’m watching by following me on letterboxd.com—where I’m also writing tons of capsule reviews.