This perfect little movie made my heart sing today. It’s humble and understated but flawlessly distills everything that is right about life and love and family and hope into a simple yet effective cinematic microcosm.
Jacob (Steven Yeun) moves his family from their small apartment in California to a farm in Arkansas. Well, a potential farm, at least. It has promise. At the moment it’s a small plot of land, a trailer, and a dream. Jacob’s wife Monica (Yeri Han) isn’t as enthusiastic about this dream, or about the trailer, or about leaving California, but she’s going along with it because finally her mother Soonja (Yuh-jung Youn) will be able to join them. Little David (Alan Kim) isn’t so keen on Grandma Soonja – she smells like Korea and swears like a sailor and prefers to gamble at cards than bake cookies like other grandmothers do. This Grandma’s a dud and she sleeps in his room!
Jacob and Monica work at a local hatchery sexing chickens. David and sister Anne (Noel Cho) go to church to save on babysitting. Jacob and a religious zealot named Paul (Will Patton) plant seeds and irrigate the land. Soonja gets addicted to Mountain Dew. Minari is the story of an immigrant family in search of the American Dream in 1980s Arkansas. It may not be the typical experience, but it does manage to feel universal. At its heart, Minari is about family – about where we plant roots, how we cultivate intimacy, why a home is not the building that houses us but the people who live inside.
Writer-director Lee Isaac Chung allows the story to unfold naturally, never pushing us into emotions but quietly earning them nonetheless. The film is semi-autobiographical and benefits from Chung’s store of intimate details that really make his story come alive. They help establish a sense of time and place, an important backdrop to this family’s origin story. The Yi family is at a critical juncture; these hardships will either pull them apart or cement them together. Their instability puts a lot of stress on them, and what starts as a fight between mom and dad trickles down to insecurity in the children. Only Grandma, who has certainly seen much worse, is a constant source of strength and love. Little David doesn’t always love her back, in fact sometimes he’s downright cruel, but Grandma has nothing but love for him – just not the kind he’s become accustomed to from American sitcoms. It takes him a while to warm up to her, but their relationship is the best part of the movie.
Minari is named after a Korean plant, a resilient little bigger that has the strength and tenacity to grow even in rough soil. The movie, likewise, is deceptively simple, but once you crack the nut, its insides are warm and nourishing. The film is disarming, the cast is uniformly excellent, and Chung finds a perfect balance between the bitter and the sweet.
Minari is releasing on all digital and on-demand platforms across Canada on February 26th.