“Minari” may look like the story of immigrants trying to fit in, but it’s really everyone’s story about assimilation.
Through the Korean family – who move from Los Angeles to Arkansas – we can see our own moments of hesitation, want and frustration.
Convinced he will never be able to give his wife and children more than food and shelter, Jacob (Steven Yeun) moves them to Arkansas where he hopes to begin farming.
This alarms his wife, Monica (Han Ye-ri), who doesn’t want to go where there isn’t a sense of community. She balks, but goes and then brings her mother, Soonja (Yuh-Jung Youn), from Korea to live with them.
Instantly, the children realize grandma isn’t like other grandmas. “She smells like Korea,” young David (Alan S. Kim) says. Worse, she guzzles Mountain Dew and does little to ease their discomfort.
Because the two have to share a room, grandma and grandson bond, approaching this “new normal” in a different way. She brought minari seeds to the United States and plants them near water where it can thrive.
Dad, meanwhile, struggles to get his farm going. He thinks there’s money in growing Korean vegetables. Without irrigation, however, it’s likely his crops will fail.
Director Lee Isaac Chung twists a familiar story in such delightful ways it’s impossible not to root for the Yi family and their gamble.
Yeun demonstrates such determination it’s hard to see his wife’s point when she wants to abandon the dream and return to California.
David, meanwhile, experiences health issues that all but force the family’s hand. Chung introduces several more crises and, in the process, shows how valuable family – and friendship – can be.
“Minari,” like the plant, grows quickly. It pulls you in with Kim and Youn (who’s a lock for a Best Supporting Actress nomination), then grabs you with Yeun. The three are such expertly written characters they can’t be ignored. The actors ensure it.
Supporting roles (including that of a religious man, played by Will Patton) flesh the story in ways you wouldn’t imagine.
And, then, there’s Lachlan Milne’s cinematography, which makes Arkansas look like the paradise Jacob suggests. Vast fields represent promise; tornadoes suggest threats.
Loosely based on Chung’s life, “Minari” repeatedly plays with metaphors. At the chicken sexing plant where Jacob and Monica work, males are discarded because they’re “useless.” A snake David and Soonja discover near the water prompts her to suggest “things that hide are more dangerous and scary.” Easily, the unspoken words in their home could fall in the latter category.
Simple in structure, complex in messaging, “Minari” surprises just as much as last year’s Oscar winner, “Parasite.”
It, too, probes human relationships. But, here, it makes a solid pitch for love and understanding. It's a winning film -- one of the year's best.