“Beautiful, tender, nuanced, lovely, gentle, modest.” These are words critics use to describe Minari. It had an impressive showing at the Oscars, with six nominations, including Best Picture.
Audience reaction is much more restrained, with an IMDB audience rating barely above average. This raises an important question about how to evaluate movies. Minari asks questions like “What is the relationship between ‘technical quality’ of a movie and its ability to move an audience?” If a movie is a superior work of craftsmanship, why doesn’t the public react more positively? Is it ‘elitism’ to argue that the movie-going public just doesn’t ‘get’ what a nearly perfect movie is?
Just because Avengers: Endgame earned billions of dollars does not mean that it is a great movie; popular culture and high art are not the same. The IMDB audience rating is based on about 47,000 entries, so those viewers did not find it as impressive as the professional critics and the movie industry.
Minari springs from the mind of a single person: writer and director Lee Isaac Chung. His vision is highly personal. As in the film, he grew up on an Arkansan farm. Unlike the film’s story, though, he left the farm, went to Yale to study ecology, and dropped out in his senior year to make movies. His first film, Munyurangabo, premiered at Cannes to critical acclaim in 2007.
Clearly Chung is bringing heavy Korean sensibilities to his film, implemented by the strong Korean heritage actors he has cast. Korean-born American actor Steven Yeun received critical success in films like Bong Joon Ho’s Okja. In Minari, Yeun portrays Jacob, and received an Oscar nomination for Leading Actor. Yeri Han is Monica, Jacob’s wife. Her performance reveals contrasting loyalty to her husband conflicting with her family’s best interests. Yuh-Jung Youn won the Oscar for Supporting Actress for her performance as the grandmother, bringing a mix of humor and tragedy with old Korean wisdom injected into the American scene. The other Academy nomination was for the score by Emile Mosseri: beautifully subtle.
And here we are back to words like “subtle, tender, and nuanced:” that’s what this movie is all about. There is nothing in-your-face about Minari—no jolts, no real surprises, nothing jarring. There are unanticipated events that stir things up toward the end of the movie, but nothing unsettling.
At the core, what exactly should we expect from a movie? Years ago I argued that a work of art need not be beautiful to be good; the true function of art was to arouse emotion or stimulate ideas and the value of art was in how successful it accomplished that.
So, what, exactly, does Minari leave us with? Are we stimulated to action? Are we driven to intense sadness? Do we revel in feelings of success? Unfortunately, I personally can’t find the feeling in this movie. It is considered a drama but I didn’t cry anywhere during the film (and ask my wife, I cry at a lot of movies!). I didn’t leave the film energized to do battle with bigots (the Arkansans in this film might be biased, but they never actually DO anything bad).
In the end, I finished the film and felt a certain calm. You appreciate this movie much like fine French wines—frequently given the same labels used to describe this movie. And one doesn’t usually drink French wines by themselves—they go beautifully with food, drawing out flavors that you wouldn’t sense otherwise. In fact, drinking a French wine by itself isn’t a particularly flavorful experience.
Technically, this movie is fine. But like a French wine, what are you supposed to pair it with to draw out its subtleties? I can only summon up 3.5 stars. (But enjoy the music!)