VOD film review: Minari
James R | On 02, Apr 2021
Director: Lee Isaac Chung
Cast: Steven Yeun, Yeri Han, Alan S Kim, Noel Cho, Darryl Cox
One of the great truths that power cinema’s empathy machine is that the more specific a story becomes, the more universal it feels. Minari, a film that gets its title from a specific type of celery, is as specific at it gets, and it feels timelessly warm and welcoming.
Written and directed by Lee Isaac Chung, the film is based loosely on his own experiences as we follow a Korean-American family who have moved out to Arkansas to build a new life for themselves. Living in a trailer and working in a nearby chicken hatchery, it’s not exactly the American Dream, and yet dreams and hopes at the very heart of this beautifully uplifting tale.
Steven Yeun stars as Jacob, a husband and father whose ambition is to grow Korean vegetables and sell them to the other migrant families. His wife, Monica (Yeri Han), isn’t sold on the idea, not least because their remote farmland home has taken their son, David (a brilliantly playful Alan S Kim), who has a heart murmur, away from the city and its hospitals. Their daughter, Anne (Noel Cho), is also restless as she tries to find something to occupy her time. Tensions climb when they’re joined by Soonja (Yuh-jung Youn), Monica’s mother, who is there to help with childcare, but mostly raises mischief.
Yeun has always been one to watch since his breakout turn in The Walking Dead and he delivers a consummately sincere performance here, leading a gorgeously convincing group that rings with natural chemistry and affection. While Yuh-jung Youn is having scene-stealing fun as the mother-in-law, it’s a low-key ensemble piece that finds its subtle strength in the way they pull together to weather the ups and downs of a fresh start, navigating the challenging of retaining a sense of identity while fitting into a new culture.
There are memories and baggage of the past that linger in the backdrop of the lyrical 1980s landscape, particularly as Jacob meets Paul (Will Patton), an evangelical farmer. Revealing a photo of himself serving in the Korean War, he nonetheless brushes aside those conflicts in favour of connection and compassion, helping to cultivate the celery in the region’s rich soil. The idea of planting and nurturing new life on unfamiliar ground is a metaphor that could sit heavy on the script, but Minari mines its with a light, moving touch, reminding us the life continues to find a way to flourish even when we’re distracted by setbacks elsewhere. There is humour and charm in abundance here, joined together by the tiniest details – it’s a story as unique as it as universally endearing.