A film review by Craig J. Koban April 6, 2021


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. Harlan

Written 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 environment. 

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 abilities.  Complicating 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 anyone watching.   

Chung's spare, 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. 

It can be said that MINARI doesn't really do anything memorably groundbreaking with its core narrative and premise.  Also, there have been countless other stories about the social/cultural gap between immigrant families coming to America and those that have lived there for multiple generations.  The overall modesty of approach, though, highlighted in MINARI is, in my mind, one of its greatest assets.  It tells a small and simple slice of life tale that speaks on multiple large levels to the audience, which ultimately gives it such a deceptive weight.  And considering how so much of the news these days has been relaying the sickening levels of anti-Asian hate that has permeated the world during our current pandemic, I can't think of a more timely and crucial film to watch that, in turn, will add something to this greater conversation than MINARI.  Our world is a melting pot of divergent races, backgrounds, and lived experiences, but cascading through all of that is how we all deal with strife, uncertainty, and multiple obstacles that impede our success and happiness.  Every immigrant story is indeed unique, but MINARI wisely understands the commonality that people share in terms of facing adversity in an unknown environment while chasing after a piece of the American dream.

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