Minari ★★★★★

“Even the doctors are worried,” young David (Alan S. Kim) overhears his mother Monica (Yeri Han) tell his grandmother Soonja (Youn Yuh-Jung) one sunny afternoon. “His heart could stop at any moment.”

Her voice, low with concern, carries through the open window of their mobile home to where this seven-year-old boy stands outside, soaking in daylight. His face falls just a little as he struggles to make sense of what he’s heard. Later, David tells his grandmother, “I don’t want to die,” and she holds him close.

When I first watched Minari, now more than a year ago at Sundance, I carried the feelings it stirred in me out of the theater, clasped to my chest, believing I’d never put them down. It broke my heart, I wrote at the time, only to piece it back together stronger than before. You get that sense, sometimes, of knowing a great film when you see one—but it’s much rarer to feel that a great film knows you back, and knows you deeply. That kind of recognition matters. It helps you make sense of all your pieces, and you hold it up like a mirror in hopes of finally finding the ones that went missing some time ago.

The “universality” of writer-director Lee Isaac Chung’s acclaimed feature, which explicitly draws from his experience growing up as a Korean immigrant in 1980s Arkansas, means something different to everyone who describes it that way. For some, the film’s portrait of an immigrant family assimilating into the American heartland hits particularly close to home; others look at its characters in all their idiosyncrasies and see much that reminds of their own fathers and mothers. It’s through the film’s specificities that Minari depicts a family like any and no other. And it’s through preserving memories of love, heartbreak and sacrifice—even the ones he was too young to comprehend—that Chung’s excavation of his own childhood hits on achingly resonant truths about the fluid, formative essence of family.

For me, Minari most personally evokes my memories of loving a child with a congenital heart defect—a child like David, or like my youngest sister, Tabitha, whose tenuous health offered reasons to fear the worst, and whose sense of lightness kept that fear at bay more often than not. I know well the adoration with which Chung (who himself had a heart murmur as a child) draws David out of the past, with his irrepressible curiosity, too-big cowboy boots and mischievous streak. When I picture my sister, I first see her smile, then hear her laughter—still as clear and melodic as birdsong through the halls of our home. I remember the way oversized sunglasses often sat atop her curly head of hair, and how she would dot the i in her name with a heart. It’s through remembering Tabitha, as Chung remembers David, that Minari comes into focus for me as a film about the fleeting and exquisitely ephemeral nature of childhood, and how precarious that innocence always was.

Full essay available at Paste Magazine

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