Film Revew: ‘Minari’ an elegiac but life-affirming story

Minari Film Review - Steven Yeun

Minari

4 out of 5 stars – ‘Highly Recommended’
Written and Directed by Lee Isaac Chung
Starring Steven Yeun, Yeri Han, Alan S. Kim
2020 | PG-13 | 1h55min
Streaming: Google Play, Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV, Vudu, YouTube, Viki

American film director Lee Isaac Chung grew up on a farm in Arkansas; his parents emigrated from Korea to the United States. In directing Minari, Chung drew heavily on his life experience, and produced a deeply affecting film about family and what can happen when husband and wife appear united but pull in different directions.

Currently available on Netflix, Minari appeals to a wide audience and it won dozens of awards in 2021 — from best director and best film to best supporting actress, best cinematography and best foreign language film. Each performance is a delight in a skillfully put-together mosaic of family life.

Steven Yeun as Jacob and Yeri Han as Monica drive from California to Arkansas in search of a better life. Jacob has plans which he has not shared with Monica. For starters, their new home is a trailer on cement blocks in the middle of 50 acres.

Director Lee Chung chose to show different perspectives in the opening scenes. As each family member exits the car and views rural Arkansas, reactions set the stage for the conflict which follows. Jacob is excited by the possibilities of this rich farmland, its promise and magic. Monica is stunned into silence by the sight of a trailer on blocks in the middle of nowhere. “What is this place? Our new home. This isn’t what you promised.”

Minari excels in language that is nuanced and spare.

The children simply enjoy the novelty of a new location. Chung said he gave few directions to the child actors (Alan Kim as David and Noel Kate Cho as his older sister Anne), so that their reactions could be spontaneous rather than rehearsed.

Minari excels in language that is nuanced and spare. Both silences and cinematography take the audience more deeply into the family drama and the almost inevitable conflict. Yeri Han as Monica particularly excels at voicing her concern and her increasing disenchantment by means of facial expression, body language and silence.

Knowing they both have to work, Monica is concerned about finding responsible people to be with the children. The parents settle on having her mother come to live with them. Family is important in their lives, and Jacob lost his parents in the Korean War. He feels his responsibility deeply as son-in-law and as the eldest son of his late parents.

Grandmother Soonja (played by Yuh-Jung Youn) is traditional family, the essence of salty irreverence, and a healing light rolled into one. No surprise that Yuh-Jung walked away with best supporting actress awards in several film festivals.

Cultural differences abound in 1980s rural Arkansas. Monica and Jacob have to drive all the way to Dallas to buy chili powder and anchovies. Grandmother Soonja arrives with such delicacies packed in her bags, along with herbs for soups and tea. And Soonja also brings minari seeds, to be planted along the creek bed; minari is used widely in Korean cooking. Watching Monica welcome her mother with a slight bow and few words, but with incredible warmth in her face, is deeply moving.

Mischievous as only a seven year old can be, David does not take to his grandmother. After all, she does not bake cookies, she swears when playing Korean card games, and she smells of fragrances alien to his young American nose. Pranks on his part are inevitable. When his father finds out, he orders David to select a switch from a bush outside, so he can be punished. But Soonja pleads on David’s behalf, and punishment is avoided. A new chapter in their relationship begins.

WATCH: Minari Official Trailer | A24

Operating a farm is hard work and expensive. In seeking agricultural help to get started, Jacob meets Paul, an evangelical, and an unlikely friendship begins. Will Patton is outstanding as the local eccentric with a heart of gold, shyly showing Jacob currency from Korea in the 1950s, where Paul had fought in the Korean War. He wards off spirits with stream-of-consciousness prayers and can be seen sometimes walking along the dirt road bearing a
large wooden cross on his shoulders.

If Will Patton looks vaguely familiar to you, it’s because you have seen him in many films including The Client, No Way Out, and Remember the Titans. A talented and resourceful actor.

Minari has universal appeal because the pieces that make up family are the same in any culture. As grandmother, father, mother and the children walk through the 50 acres between sunrise and sunset, each on his or her mission that day, as hopes and prayers are formed, the viewer identifies with this elegiac but life-affirming story.

Highly recommended.

Jeanne is a published poet and essayist. She holds degrees from Wayne State University and the University of San Francisco. Jeanne has taught in the CS, UB and OLLI programs at universities in the City. Her books in print include MY OWN SILENCE and WORD DANCING from Taurean Horn Press.
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