2021, PG-13, 115 mins.
Steven Yeun as Jacob / Han Ye-ri as Monica / Youn Yuh-jung as Soonja / Will Patton as Paul / Scott Haze as Billy / Noel Kate Cho as Anne / Alan Kim as David / Eric Starkey as Randy Boomer / Esther Moon as Mrs. Oh / Darryl Cox as Mr. HarlanWritten and directed by Lee Isaac Chung
I don't profess to know much of anything about what it's like to be a farmer, let alone a Korean one living in Arkansas, but the new autobiographical period drama MINARI attempts to enlighten and educate viewers on those very matters.
The film does
indeed tell a tale of a Korean American family trying to the best of their
abilities to acclimate to rural Americana while sustaining their farm.
Writer/director Lee Isaac Chung (who just recently became just the
fourth East Asian filmmaker to even be Oscar nominated for Best Director)
bases his film on his own personal upbringing with his family of
immigrants that faced great culture clashes while trying to settle in the
U.S. in the 1980s, and the most masterful touches in his film lies in how
it manages to say something universal about the shared human experience.
Opening in the
aforementioned decade in question, MINARI introduces us to Jacob (in a
career making performance by THE WALKING DEAD'S Steven Yeun), a plucky and
ambitious minded farmer that wishes to uproot his entire Korean family out
of California for a chance to start anew in Arkansas.
His wife in Monica (Yeri Han) seems reticent about Jacob's yearning
to give vegetable farming a go in a new climate, whereas they two kids in
Anne (Noel Cho) and David (Akan S. Kim) seem mostly indifferent.
Monica in particular gets immediately crestfallen when the
eternally (and potentially naively) optimistic Jacob shows her and the
clan their new home, which is essentially a semi-broken down trailer-like
dwelling on legs in the literal middle of nowhere.
Jacob, however, thinks it's prime real estate, seeing as he
believes that the nearby soil is among the best he's ever seen and capable
of producing a banger crop. Monica
thinks otherwise and struggles to see any future in their current
In order to
initially make ends meet and supplement the farm, Monica take a lowly and
soul crushing job at a local hatchery that involves inspecting hundreds of
baby chicks to segregate desired sexes from one another.
Jacob tries to get his new vegetable farm afloat and receives some
help in this endeavor from a local religious man named Paul (Will Patton),
who may or may not be all mentally there.
With the limitlessly unpredictable and arduous nature of farming in
a land unfamiliar to them, Jacob and Monica find themselves equally
struggling with the intense culture shock of their new Arkansas
surroundings, and they make a concentrated effort to forge new
friendships, attend local Church services, and blend in to their best
matters immensely is the appearance of Monica's mother, Soonja (Youn
Yuh-jung), who's genuinely enthusiastic to lend a helping hand to everyone
involved, but the kids seem extremely lukewarm to having an added
unfamiliar presence in their already unfamiliar home.
Throughout all of this, Jacob tries to portray an endlessly
positive front despite so many hardships being presented to him on a daily
basis. All he wants is to have a level of independence and financial
security with his new farm, but fate steps in continually to obstruct his
dreams, mentally talking him to the breaking point.
The one thing
that I admired so much with Chung's approach to MINARI is its quiet and
understated tone. This is not
a flashy or overly melodramatic portrayal of a downtrodden family looking
for their rightful piece of the proverbial pie.
Chung utilizes an exquisite, observational eye when presenting his
characters and their dilemmas, which most obviously stems from his own
immigrant experiences decades earlier.
Chung also never tries to judge his characters or their actions,
but rather provides viewers a portal into them, which consequentially
allows for us to feel great empathy for them all.
We bare witness to this family's experiences both on and off the
farm, whether it be in the location of water that's instrumental in the
farm's success or smaller scenes of Jacob and his family attempting to
make nice with the other locals, with varying degrees of success.
There's a stark and economical immediacy to MINARI that seems
largely vacant in so many other family dramas; we feel all of the
whirlwind of conflicting emotions that these beleaguered people
experience. Jacob will stop
at nothing - even alienating the woman he loves - with his obsessive
drives to get his farm going, whereas Monica feels out of place and
insecure about what's to come, creating a great push-pull dynamic that's a
core part of the conflict contained within the story,
Again, what makes
MINARI such an intoxicating watch is that it feels so tangibly lived in
and relatable. Everyone at
some point in their lives has been tainted with intense feelings of being
an outsider trying to forge a new beginning somewhere that's completely
foreign. These characters are
foreigners, but I felt like I was vicariously walking in their shoes
throughout the film and experiencing their fragilities and worries.
And who among us has tried to chase a dream that ultimately becomes
almost impossible to attain to the fullest level?
MINARI, in its purest sense, is about an immigrant farming family
attempting to make due, but when one probes deeper while watching it the
film develops layers of thematic density that achieves this tricky middle
ground of respecting the distinctiveness of this Korean family's immigrant
experience while simultaneously making it feel relevant to just about
but effectively dialed in stylistic approach allows for the performances
to shine, and Yeun and Han are the dramatic glue that holds this whole
enterprise together, in many respects.
The riff between this husband and wife is a fascinating one, mostly because
one seems fanatically driven to have their farm succeed and provide for
the family, but the other is more concerned about the whole prospect
(she's also big city dweller from a higher class background than her
spouse that doesn't like being uprooted to the country).
But Yeun and Han make us comprehend what makes their characters
respectively tick, and Chung doesn't make it an obligatory battle of wills
where there's one right and wrong party.
The actors create a married couple that feel like they've been
inseparable for years, but are on the verge of collapse, and so much of
their bravura work here is steeped in silence and reaction (other actors:
take note). One of the secret
weapons of MINARI, though, is Youn Yuh-jung as the eccentrically spirited
grandmother from the old country that takes it upon herself to impart some
much needed, plainspoken wisdom on not only her grandkids, but their
parents as well. There's a
level of unpredictable energy that is imbued in the film every time Soonja
appears, which makes her an effective foil versus the more subtler
approach of Yeun and Han. That,
and she occupies one of the more touching subplots in MINARI involving the
gradual thawing of tension between her and David, the latter who initially
seems hostilely guarded about allowing this old coot into his life, but
then slowly begins to form a touching bond with her.