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Steven Yeun is a star in Minari, the kind of movie they don’t make anymore

The Walking Dead actor has a major moment at Sundance 2020

a korean father and his young son stand in an open field Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Matt Patches is an executive editor at Polygon. He has over 15 years of experience reporting on movies and TV, and reviewing pop culture.

Polygon’s entertainment team is on the ground at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, bringing you first looks at what are sure to be some of the year’s best blockbuster-alternative offerings. Here’s what you need to know before these indie films make their way to theaters, streaming services, and the cinematic zeitgeist.

Logline: In the 1980s, a Korean man relocates his family from California to Arkansas, determined to find prosperity, no matter the cost.

Longerline: A cramped one-story home built on wheels, an overgrown field without any obvious source of water, skyrocketing debt, the complete absence of community — this is life for Monica Yi (Han Yeri), but not the American dream her husband Jacob (Steven Yeun) painted when they were a young married couple in Korea. The couple makes do, juggling their work lives as chicken sexers with the backbreaking gamble of working new farmland. Their kids, Anne and David (Noel Cho and Alan S. Kim), are antsy to steady out. Everyone in the family is on a different wavelength, and their love for one another only goes so far toward assuaging their hardships.

Somewhat unexpectedly, the South is a welcoming home to the Yis. A God-fearing war vet who dabbles in exorcism (Will Patton) becomes Jacob’s ally in growing Korean vegetables to meet an expanding immigrant population. A nearby church welcomes the family into the congregation, in spite of the cultural divide. The family’s obstacle is really Jacob, who’s willing to squander anything — including the land’s natural water supply — to grow crops and get a profitable farm off the ground. For Monica, it might all be passable if he could be a father to his children, especially David, who’s lashing out like any silly 7-year-old with too much free time.

The family eventually flies in Grandma Soonja (Yuh-Jung Youn) to watch David, who might just be as stubborn as his father. But all of Jacob’s temporary solutions are met by more problems. The well water runs dry. The physically demanding days erode his work at the chicken hatchery. Medical emergencies dent an already precious fund. The pastoral beauty of Arkansas can’t salve the family’s hemorrhaging bank account, or a marriage that’s falling apart.

The quote that says it all: “Even if I fail, I have to finish what I started.”

What’s it trying to do? Minari, produced by A24, Brad Pitt’s Plan B Entertainment, and Yeun himself, throws back to a type of thoughtful family drama that’s nearly extinct from modern movie-going. Sundance’s own description compares this latest feature from Lee Isaac Chung (Abigail Harm) to the low-key family dramas of Japanese legend Yasujirō Ozu, though John Irving novels might be just as appropriate. The world is grand, the prospects are large, the characters find humor in the darkest moments, and tragedy can strike at any moment. It’s an American epic of intimate proportions.

There’s another version of this story, perhaps a more Hollywood one, where the Yis swim upstream against a culture that doesn’t understand them. But in Minari, heritage is a foundation, and human impulse is the challenge to overcome. When David visits his church pal’s home, he hears about the man who used to live on his father’s plot of land. The man killed himself after failing to grow crops and losing everything. The Yis are outsiders in the Deep South, but in Chung’s sensitive portrait, they’re just another family holding themselves together. Anyone should see themselves in this journey.

Does it get there? While the film might be a hair too sentimental, Minari swells with life-affirming observations and deep performances. Chung allows the film to breathe, leaving room for each character to take root. (Kind of like the minari plant, ya dig?) David, who Kim plays as a perfect balance of “adorable” and “little shit,” deals with bedwetting, grandma skepticism, and a heart murmur. His grandma, in a riotous turn by Yuh-Jung, does not put up with any of the bad behavior, pushing David to be a participant in his own life. In Monica’s own corner of the microcosm, she imagines a life back home, and fights for her own agency when her husband’s dreams threaten her children. Han delivers a heartbreaking performance as the primary protector in a world that’s almost always out of her control.

Then there’s Steven Yeun, on a streak after 2018’s Burning. Every time this guy smokes cigarettes in a sunset-draped field is damn fine poetry. But there’s a sense of fear bubbling under Jacob’s surface, at odds with the confidence a patriarch must exude — or so he seems to think. Chung devotes lots of time to just hanging on Yeun and Han’s faces as they bore into each others souls, and the result is like visual prose.

What does that get us? A film about how we’re supposed to be spending our days. The ticking clock of the family’s funds is an ominous threat, but rarely a melodramatic one. There’s time to follow David and Grandma as they stroll through the woodlands and soak up nature. There’s time to see how the chicken hatchery operates, and what sentencing a basketful of adorable baby fluffballs does to a person’s soul day in and day out. There’s time for dinners of kimchi and beef, time to play cards, time to sit in bed and stare out of the window. Chung has complete control of every moment, and yet it all feels like fate. If we could reflect enough to see these moments in our own lives, maybe we’d be better off.

The most meme-able moment: Grandma screaming “His ding-dong is broken!” about David. (Don’t worry, David’s ding dong is not actually broken.)

When can we see it? Though A24 owns distribution rights for Minari, there’s no word on whether the film will debut theatrically or premiere on streaming via one the company’s content deals, but reporting suggests it’ll hit theaters later this year.

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