By Nicholas Barber15th February 2021Minari, which tells the story of a Korean-American family building a life in rural Arkansas is "sensitively written and acted and beautifully shot," writes Nicholas Barber.L
Like most films, Minari ends with a disclaimer assuring us that it is a work of fiction, and that any resemblance between its characters and real people is purely co-incidental. Don’t be fooled. Lee Isaac Chung’s winning family drama is actually a bittersweet account of the writer-director’s childhood in rural Arkansas, and nearly everything in it is drawn from his own memories. Even if you didn’t have any background information, though, you would put money on Minari being semi-autobiographical. Each detail is so specific, each scene so uncontrived, and each performance so authentic that it never feels as if someone has made up a story; it feels as if they are sharing vivid anecdotes from an upbringing that was rich enough to be put on screen without embellishment.
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The film is set in the 1980s – although, typically, Minari is so subtle about its period trappings that it could be a decade earlier or later. The character who represents Chung himself is David (Alan Kim), the seven-year-old son of two thirty-something Korean immigrants, Jacob (Steven Yeun) and Monica (Yeri Han). Up until now, the Yis have lived in California, where Jacob and Monica worked as chicken sexers in a hatchery. Every day they were given a box of young chicks and would separate these fluffballs into separate groups according to gender. Female chicks were allowed to survive, because they would eventually lay eggs, whereas male chicks went straight into the incinerator – and that’s why, Jacob tells his son, men have to make a special effort to prove that they aren’t useless.
After a decade of “staring at chicken’s butts”, Jacob had made his own special effort by buying 50 acres in Arkansas. He and Monica still have day jobs at a nearby hatchery, but Jacob plans to spend his spare time, and his savings, on growing crops which he can sell to his fellow Korean immigrants. The film, on one level, is a piercing but compassionate portrait of macho pride and ambition. David and his big sister Anne (the under-used Noel Kate Cho) are pleased to have their own meadows, woods and streams to explore. As shot by Lachlan Milne, the sun-kissed property is a green, unspoilt Eden – and questions of faith and religion are another theme. But Monica is unhappy about being stranded in the middle of nowhere, in a mobile home that could be torn to shreds by the next tornado. The area has “the best dirt in America,” argues Jacob. “That’s why you chose this place,” asks Monica. “Because of the dirt?”
Minari ambles along as unpredictably as life itself
The dialogue is often sharply funny, but the strain on the marriage builds: one touching scene has David and Anne responding to their parents’ late-night argument by making paper aeroplanes with “don’t fight” scrawled on the wings. But Jacob and Monica soon come up with a kind of solution. They invite Monica’s elderly widowed mother (Yuh-jung Youn) to live with them and look after the children, which turns out to mean watching wrestling matches on television and playing cards while swearing loudly in Korean. Monica is reduced to homesick tears by the bags of pungent chillies and anchovies that her mother has brought with her on the plane. There is also a bag of minari seeds – hence the film’s title – so that the family will be able to grow this Korean herb in US soil. But David isn’t keen to share a bedroom with someone who, he grumbles, doesn’t behave like a “real grandma”. His main objection: “She smells of Korea”.
It’s hardly giving away a plot twist to say that David becomes fond of his amusingly eccentric grandmother, but, as unsurprising as this development is, their relationship progresses without any forced battles or obvious turning points. Minari is too personal and intimate to be a formulaic culture-clash drama. When the characters talk about David’s weak heart, or spot a poisonous snake in the woods, the narrative seems to be heading towards a certain crisis, but Minari ambles along as unpredictably as life itself, adding more and more insightful vignettes about the frustrations of making a home somewhere new, but without ever following a straightforward generic path. The crises, when they come, sneak in from unexpected places at unexpected times.
Minari is so engaging that it’s easy to forget how radical it is
Given that Minari has a fish-out-of-water scenario about Korean settlers in what Monica calls “hillbilly country”, you might fear the worst, but none of the crises are caused by racism. The film’s take on the immigrant experience is more complex than a them-v-us conflict. In some ways, the baseball cap-wearing, tractor-driving David is an archetypal American, and the locals tend to be friendlier than the Yis: true, a boy at church asks David why his face is “so flat”, but he invites him for a sleepover a minute later. One of the most refreshing aspects of Minari is that it respects all of its characters too much to turn them into caricatures. Jacob’s hired hand (Will Patton) conducts impromptu exorcisms, and spends his Sundays dragging a 6-ft wooden cross along the road, but he is presented as a decent individual rather than a cartoon weirdo.
Sensitively written and acted, beautifully shot, and with a charming, sparingly used score, Minari is so engaging that it’s easy to forget how radical it is. Just a few years ago, a US film about a Korean-American family, with almost all of its dialogue in Korean, would have been unimaginable. Now we have a US film which focuses on one particular Korean-American family in one particular location, and yet it has so much warmth and truth to it that it will be embraced by audiences everywhere.