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Steven Yeun in Minari.
Steven Yeun in Minari.
Photo: Showmax






5/5 Stars


A Korean American family moves to an Arkansas farm in search of its own American dream. Amidst the challenges of this new life in the strange and rugged Ozarks, they discover the undeniable resilience of family and what really makes a home.


Simply put, Minari is a story of a family. It is specific enough that it feels unique and refreshing while still being relatable. Writer and director Lee Isaac Chung drew from his own experience of being a child of Korean immigrants in the 1980s to create this stunning and moving story of the resilience and love of this family.

It tells the story of the Yi family who moves to rural Arkansas from California in 1983. The father, Jacob (Steven Yeun), hopes to grow Korean produce that he can sell to Korean grocers. And while Jacob is excited about creating something for himself, his wife Monica (Han Ye-Ri) is less than impressed. The family lives in a mobile home in the middle of a deserted land, and Monica feels isolated and destitute. She is also worried because their youngest child, David (Alan Kim), has a heart condition, and the closest hospital is quite far away. Jacob and Monica often argue about their circumstances and the way forward while David and his older sister, Anne (Noel Kate Cho), listen.

The couple compromises by staying and letting Jacob try his luck at farming the land, and Jacob allowing Monica's mother, Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-Jung), to come from South Korea to stay with them. David is initially opposed to spending time with his grandmother because she doesn't behave like a 'normal' grandmother – she swears, wears men's underwear, and doesn't bake cookies. But their relationship grows as she encourages and comforts him.

Throughout the film, we see Jacob struggling to produce crops and secure clients and Monica struggling to fit in. And even after the arrival of Soon-ja, they still seem to be on two different paths. Soon-ja brings with her minari (a Korean plant also known as water celery) seeds which she plants near a river on their property. This understated plant is what grows when they lose the rest of their produce. And it becomes a symbol of what the grandmother represents to the family – understated, from Korea, and what is the catalyst for saving the family when they are on the brink of ruin.

It is evident that Lee Isaac Chung was inspired by his own family situation because some scenes were written too specific for it not to have been someone's actual lived experience. And that is what makes Minari feel so special; it feels deeply personal. We grow to feel affection for the family members; we want Jacob to succeed; we want Monica to be heard; we want David to get better. We feel invested in their success and their growth as a family.

This is hammered home by the fact that the only really notable character outside of the family is Paul (Will Patton), an overzealous neighbour who helps Jacob on the farm. Paul is known in the town for his eccentric ways, such as carrying a wooden cross around on Sundays and occasionally speaking in tongues. However, other than helping Jacob, we only experience Paul as neighbouring children tease him behind his back, and the Yi children are in the conversation. They don't comment, but we can see by their facial expressions that they don't approve; they have seen a different side of Paul, and they don't like that the other children are teasing him. Paul serves only to forward the narrative of the Yi family and their growth. The story's movement is told completely by the lives of the Yi family, so the problems and the solutions are driven by their story.

The film's entire cast is excellent, and it's very difficult to single out individual performances. Steven Yeun was lauded for his performance as Jacob. He manages to balance the loving father with the stubborn and sometimes controlling paternal figure he thinks he has to represent. At the beginning of the film, when Jacob explains to David about the job that he and his wife do, sexing chicks, he tells David that males have to make themselves useful or be seen as worthless. And the entire film seems like Jacob's attempt at making himself useful and indispensable to his family as he feels it is the duty of the man of the house.

Han Ye-ri also delivers a strong performance as Monica, a woman struggling between what she believes is best for her family and what her husband wants. Most of her work is depicted through her facial expressions, and you can see the pain and worry on her face in every scene. So that in the scenes when she is happy, you feel the glee with her because you are so happy that she does not have to worry, if only for a moment.

Alan Kim was the darling of the awards season this year, and in Minari, he exceeds expectations. He masters his portrayal of a child who is caught between the traditions of his family and the Americanised culture that he is growing up in. Youn Yuh-jung won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Soon-ja, and it was so well-deserved. Her character brings the comedic moments and some of the most emotionally heavy scenes and helps to get across the film's message.

Minari is a beautiful film, not only because of the message it brings across, but because it's beautiful to look at it with stunning cinematography. You feel like you are part of the Yi family, experiencing their challenges, rejoicing in their triumphs, and that is what makes Lee Isaac Chung's work so special; he takes you on a journey and makes you feel welcome.


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