Minari is filled with disagreements large and small – between husband and wife, faith and disbelief, farmer and land. But perhaps none of them is as memorable as the tussle between a cheeky boy and his kooky grandmother.
Starting out as adversaries and ending up as allies even as the world around them crumbles, this unlikely duo provide the most tender moments in Lee Isaac Chung’s migration drama.
The Oscar-nominated movie, which is in both Korean and English, draws on the filmmaker’s own life. Minari revolves around a South Korean immigrant family rooted in a specific culture but also universal in its reaction to adversity.
In the 1980s, Jacob Yi (Steven Yeun) and his wife, daughter and son move from California to rural Arkansas. The day job involves working in a hatchery and separating lucrative female chicks from useless male ones. Jacob hopes to prove his own worth in other ways. He indulges his passion for growing Korean produce on his land at an escalating financial and personal cost.
Although Jacob declares that his plot has “the best dirt in America”, his harried wife Monica (Han Ye-ri) is unenthusiastic about the whole project – the move from California, the stultifying work, the impact the uprooting could have on their young son David (Alan Kim), who has a congenital heart condition.
The simmering tensions between the couple explode ever so often over the course of the 115-movie, even as Jacob’s agricultural ambitions take many hard knocks.
The mood lightens with the arrival of Monica’s twinkly-eyed mother from South Korea. Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung) annoys David with her unconventional ways but also endears herself to him with her ability to see the humour in the family’s not infrequent travails and her refusal to pass judgement.
Chung’s screenplay has both on-the-nose explorations of the family’s Christian faith as well as more subtly observed, delicately crafted moments. Many of these revolve around the children. The older sister Anne (Noel Kate Cho), who is wise and resilient beyond her years, often stands in for her mother in caring for the mischievous David. The boy, played without a trace of self-consciousness by Alan Kim, proves to be more mature than he has led everybody to believe.
Solid performances from the entire cast – a strange cameo by Will Patton notwithstanding – bind the episodic narrative and give it shape and direction. Steven Yeun and Han Ye-ri, as Monica, are moving in their determination to make sense of their new surroundings and changed circumstances. Yuh-Jung Youn, as the unorthodox matriarch, takes her place in the gallery of scene-stealing movie grannies.
But even Youn has to cede ground to Alan Kim as the boy with the cardiac condition who emerges as the movie’s big beating heart.
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