Noel Kate Cho

Is Minari the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

I do not read GQ, but someone linked this article on Twitter and I think it contains a few interesting things worth pulling out to start a discussion of Minari. First, it includes the prices of all the clothes Steve Yeun wears in all the pictures, which seems to be their “deal” but is ridiculous in a piece like this. Second, it includes this from Yeun:

“There’s this built-in Voltron image of what an Asian dad is supposed to be, and to break through that is kind of difficult,” he added. “To not just break through the expectations of others, but also to break through the gaze in your own mind. We profess that we’re caught in the white American gaze, and that’s true. But we forget that we are also that gaze. That gaze is encoded into us, and the last boss is yourself.”

Yeun said this as part of a larger discussion about his character in Minari. He plays Jacob Yi, a Korean American farm worker who wants to grow vegetables. He wants to build a life for his family and he’s willing to take a risk to do it. It’s one thing to make it and quite another to feel like you’ve made it, and Jacob will only be satisfied if he feels like he’s made it his way.

Han Ye-ri plays his wife Monica, who is frustrated with slow progress and the distance and difficulties that she feels Jacob is inserting into their lives. She doesn’t want to live in the country, especially not rural Arkansas, and she doesn’t think this is the right path for their family. Daughter Anne (Noel Kate Cho) and son David (Alan Kim) don’t get much say in the matter and seem to try to fit in as best they can.

The movie hinges around Monica’s mother Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung) coming to live with them and the energy she changes with her presence. David especially is thrown by this wild, strange woman who “doesn’t act like a grandmother.” David has a heart condition and struggles with daily life, while Soon-ja wants to drink Mountain Dew and watch pro wrestling. It’s a role reversal between two characters we spend a lot of time with and it adds to the reality of the world. These aren’t stock figures in a movie about “finding a better life,” these are real people with real quirks and real ambitions.

There are no heroes or villains, even outside of the Yi family. The only other character with any significant screen time is Paul, played by Will Patton, who carries a cross around on Sunday and won’t even touch a cigarette. He’s a bit of a cartoon, but the longer he hangs around the more it feels like just a heightened version of a real person you might run into in this world. I’ve spent a lot of time in Arkansas and I felt like it was still a bit much, but it’s notable that he is just a guy who hangs around and wants to help.

It shouldn’t be remarkable that a movie like this is just about a real story and how characters move through it, but I feel I have to call out that no one wants to destroy the Yi family because they came in as Korean Americans and they’re the other. There is no scene with a dude with one overall strap buttoned saying he doesn’t like “their kind.” There is racial tension through misunderstanding and through the immigrant experience, but it is done through narrative rather than through tropes. Even in a scene where a white kid asks David a racist question about his appearance, it’s clear from how the scene plays out and what follows that this is realistic confusion and, arguably, curiosity. We can infer some of the greater difficulties and the movie doesn’t present a rosy picture, but it doesn’t feel the need to talk down to the audience to understand the societal challenge.

I really enjoyed it, front to back. This is the first new release I’ve watched by paying full-ticket price during lockdown and I’d recommend it. People seem to balk at the price, but for my fiancé and I, it would have cost more to do it at the theater. Hard to judge it in that context and I hope that the revenue it makes does films like this some good. Minari is in a weird space with cultural conversation, as it was nominated for (and won) Best Foreign Language Film at the Golden Globe Awards. The Globes say that any movie with more than 50% of the dialogue not in English is “foreign,” which may work as a technical definition but is a tough statement to make about a movie about Americans having the American experience in America. The Globes are always dumb, but rarely in ways this easy to understand and disagree with.

Reading “(USA)” as the country under the foreign film section of the winners of this year’s Globes is the height of silliness, but it calls to mind a number of similar conversations. A friend of mine mentioned Roma the other day and the first thing I thought of was a debate about if a Netflix movie can be a real “Best Picture” candidate. That debate looks very silly now for obvious reasons, and I hope that this debate looks silly in future years for even more obvious reasons.

Dumb debates about American film aside, Minari is a powerful, frustrating movie. I say frustrating in a positive way, as it succeeds in showing a family struggle as the principle figures clash about what is best for their future. It also shows a marriage in crisis without necessarily saying that or spending all the possible screen time on it. It’s never far from what’s happening, but Jacob pushes against the idea saying that everything will be okay once he can get into business. It’s never that simple and it isn’t for Jacob and Monica, either.

To return to Yeun’s quote at the top, his character really is fascinating. I’m not Korean American and I cannot begin to understand the experience, but the accomplishment is still very clear. Minari has to show us a family that is distinctly Korean as well as distinctly American and to do so in a way that doesn’t ever pull us out of the story to help us understand either point. Choices need to feel like part of a larger story and characterization, which they continuously do. These should be table stakes, but I don’t feel like they are in a lot of movies. It’s just a damn good story, well told, with some more difficult realities to examine than similar fare that would be damned with the descriptor “heartwarming.”

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? It is better than both versions of Solaris. It also feels better to watch this even though both movies show us a marriage where people don’t understand each other because they’re not necessarily paying attention the right way. Solaris doesn’t want you to feel good, so it’s not really a level playing field, but still going with Minari.

Is it the best movie of all time? I still am sticking with In the Mood for Love. I really enjoyed Minari and I was surprised at the high-wire act it pulled off when showing a family that fights and struggles but not feeling like an emotional workout. I think the only thing that makes me go with In the Mood for Love is the challenge there of a love story without the love is even harder, but I’d say Minari is the better movie to watch on a Tuesday.

You can watch Minari on YouTube ($19.99) or Amazon Prime ($19.99). You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.