Running time: 115 minutes
Written and directed by: Lee Isaac Chung
Featuring: Steven Yeun, Han Ye-ri, Alan Kim, Noel Kate Cho, Youn Yuh-jung and Will Patton
Soonja: “Minari is truly the best. It grows anywhere, like weeds. So anyone can pick and eat it. Rich or poor, anyone can enjoy it and be healthy. Minari can be put in kimchi, put in stew, put in soup. It can be medicine if you are sick. Minari is wonderful, wonderful!”
Released on Blu-ray and DVD is one of the better reviewed movies of the past twelve months in the form of “Minari” (2020) a foreign language film set in rural US. “Minari” was nominated for six Academy Awards eventually winning one for Youn Yuh-jung in the category of Best Supporting Actress, although it could have easily won more having shone in many other awards shows. The movie itself deals with something many people can identify with, arriving in a new country where the main aim is to carve out a new life for your family all the while maintaining an identity that you can reconcile with a new culture that is different from what has been experienced in the past.
The film is sent in 1983, the Korean immigrant Yi family moves from California to their new plot of land in rural Arkansas, where father Jacob hopes to grow Korean produce to sell to vendors in Dallas. One of his first decisions is to decline the services of a water diviner and he digs a well in a spot he finds on his own. He enlists the help of Paul, an eccentric local man and Korean War veteran. While Jacob is optimistic about the life ahead, his wife Monica is disappointed and worries about their son David’s heart condition; he is frequently told not to run due to this. Jacob and Monica work sexing chicks at the nearby hatchery and argue constantly while David and his sister Anne eavesdrop. To help watch the children during the day, they arrange for Monica’s mother Soon-ja to travel from South Korea. David, who is forced to share a room with her, avoids her because she does not conform to his idea of how a grandmother should be. Still, Soon-ja attempts to adjust to life in the States and bond with the children. The story from here gets more complex and I am not going to explain any more what happens to avoid spoilers, but it is an intense story that reflects real experiences and possibilities for an entire family over three generations.
“Minari” is partly the story of Jacob’s struggle to get his new business up and running in a very naturalistic way, but of course with all the peace comes volatility from his family and from those around him in the wider area. Minari is a leafy green vegetable (sometimes called water celery or water dropwort) popular in Korean cooking. In this movie, it flourishes in an Arkansas creek bed, supplying a title, a precise bit of detail. This story is a type of frontier exploration in a place that has been abandoned but is now a home for a new type of family. Like farmers before the family is isolated from each other and from the world around them, life is tough for the time it is set and this comes through with the sparse filing created by the writer/director who knows exactly the storey he is telling, I must say expertly. Interestingly the genre is a movable feast that brings comedy into the fold with the arrival of Oscar winner Yuh-Jung Youn, a Sonja the suffering Mother.
Written and Directed by Lee Isaac Chung “Minari” is that rare film that embraces its predictability while offering audiences twists and turns along the way to its ending. The immigrant family is now a genre unto itself that does breed familiarity but everyones story is its own thing and that is true here. It’s not just that Chung, a Korean-American filmmaker in his early 40s who grew up on a farm in Arkansas, is drawing on what he knows. Like any good or even great relatively independent or low budget film “Minari” is not only deeply personal but original in its setting and execution, can you think of another foreign language US movie set in rural America with not only truly unique immigrants but also those US citizens around them, it demands repeat viewings and deserves them.
“Minari” is undoubtedly led by the central performance of Steven Yeun who shines in this movie much like he has for the past little while especially since the critical hit “Burning” (2018) directed by Chang-dong Lee. However this movie is also bolstered by the entire cast and it has to be said by Youn Yuh-jung who almost steals the entire film with her fantastic Oscar winning turn as the somewhat matriarch of the newly arrived family. It is also great seeing Will Patton as a character only he can play, very strange yet very authentic.
This is a film that not demands to be seen but is also an outlier in one sense but a narrative that we will be seeing more of in the years to come when there is now a demand for new, interesting stories about people we have never seen before but told from their own point of view and not told by outsiders. “Minari” is also a film that engages and invites points of view of different ages from the very young to the seniors which again reflects our society now although the idea of the aged offering wisdom is an idea that could grow, especially after the recent US election.
I recommend this movie highly and it should be a part of any collection, it is an easy rewatch.