After winning best director for 2019’s ParasiteBong Joon-ho somewhat dubiously attributed a quote to Martin Scorsese: “the most personal is the most creative.” There is an obvious truth to this — art is, after all, a medium of expression — but it’s a quote that also poses something of a trap. The relationship is correlative, not causal; just because a story is personal doesn’t mean it is creative, and vice versa.

This rings especially true for Minari, the latest effort from Lee Isaac Chung. Chung has been open in discussing how much of this film was inspired by his own experiences as the son of Korean-American immigrants growing up in rural Arkansas. The young Alan S. Kim does a great job as David, Chung’s avatar in the film, but it’s easy to feel Chung’s presence in other ways as well.

The focus of the film is Jacob, played by Steven Yeun, who attempts to make real his dream of owning land and operating a successful farm thereon. His wife Monica (Yeri Han) is rightfully concerned about just how much Jacob is willing to sacrifice in order to make this dream a reality. To add well-established premise to other well-established premise, Monica’s mother-in-law Soonja (Yuh-Jung Youn, in a Oscar-winning performance) comes to live in the family’s trailer.

The relatively sparse story does a good job of leaving room for the characters to move around and let their true colors be shown, but the movie, for all of its personal flair, does little to challenge some very traditional cinematic rhetoric. Without spoiling anything, the end result of the movie is one the privileges synthesis: assimilation into one’s environment, reckoning one’s goals with reality, compromise between partners and family members. Chung seems insistent on telling us a story of progress — slow progress, one that only comes as a result of great adversity — but progress all the same.

Simply put, it’s a shame that Minari ends up being so conservative. For a movie with several interesting characters (particular recognition should go to Will Patton‘s Paul), very little about them is meaningfully challenged. The trajectory is always personal, familial growth. The subject may be novel, but conventionality reigns supreme.

The same remains true stylistically. Minari, for lack of a better term, bears the signature A24 look. Lots of steadicam with some spare handheld shots for moments of impact or intimacy; a slick and somewhat muted color palette, and a sub-two hour runtime.

Chung successfully made the personal cinematic — this much is obvious — but he seems to have skimped on the creativity a bit. All the same, it’s difficult not to be swept in by the mix of bootstraps optimism and sheer personality that Minari‘s characters — the soul of the movie — have on offer.

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