- By Arlene Winnick
- Photos Courtesy of A24
There have been many movies about the immigrant experience and the pursuit American dream – starting a new life in a strange land with the universal hope of securing a better and more rewarding life. Minari, Lee Isaac Chung’s film inspired by his own life, takes the genre to a new and textural level that reaches across ethnic and geographic boundaries to tell a very personal story albeit one with broad implications and lessons. Writer-director Chung was raised on a farm in Arkansas so he used his childhood farming ‘memories’ to initially outline the story which is why, I believe, Minari seems so genuine.
Jacob Yi uproots his struggling urban family and moves them to a barren farmstead in rural Arkansas where he has dreams of becoming a vegetable farmer – specifically Korean vegetables. His wife Monica is clearly not on board particularly after she inspects the sparse trailer they will live in. The American-born children, Anne, a quiet pre-teen, and David, a precocious youngster, approach the new landscape with wonder and trepidation. As the Yi family uncomfortably settles in, we watch each one struggle to adjust to the sudden isolation, cramped quarters and shifting priorities. Yet Jacob’s stubborn optimism continues in almost a pioneering self-reliant fashion – one that puzzles and angers his wife who clearly does not share his vision. He cannot be defeated. He eventually accepts help from a vocal evangelical Christian farmer brilliantly portrayed by actor Will Patton. The difficult life of rural farming fraught with soil, irrigation, and weather issues takes its toll on all.
Into this fragile setting comes Soon-ja, Monica’s mother from South Korea, one of the most endearing and outrageous onscreen characters I’ve seen this year. Played by veteran Korean actress Youn Yuh-jung, she truly deserves her Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress. She’s not your typical cookie baking grandmother unless yours likes pro wrestling, gambling and cuss words. Her wisdom and kindness slowly evolve as she begins to bond with young David over a glass of Mountain Dew. Young David has a heart condition and the tenuous nature of his health plays a role in the movie.
In this time of incidents of violence against Asian, there is a very honest and relevant scene at the church when a young boy comes up to David and makes fun of his face… and in the next moment asks him to come to his house and play. Also, at church, I loved what the grandmother does when the donation basket is passed around. You will have to watch for yourself.
The film is visually simple, thrifty and really beautiful. The title Minari refers to a special plant that Soon-ja has brought with her from Korea. Other visuals like the cramped trailer sitting on wheels in an empty Ozark expanse is a powerful metaphor for the need to build a safe foundation for the family.
Rarely do I focus on the music in a film, but there was something haunting, almost mysterious about the Minari soundtrack. Per composer Emile Mosseri, “It was an exciting challenge to try and musically personify something as visceral and emotionally-loaded as childhood memory.” Added director Chung on Mosseri’s work, “I like the idea of the score having a warm beating heart but also some dissonance and struggle, dipping between those two worlds seamlessly.”
Minari has already received numerous accolades and appears on the 2020 Top Ten Lists of more than 68 film critics. The film is rated PG13 – an ideal family movie and young kids will love the antics of young David – a standout performance by newcomer (he’s only seven!) Alan S. Kim. When actor Steven Yeun – the first Asian-American actor to receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor – was asked about playing Jacob, he said, “It took me a while to come around to just accept Jacob as simply a human being.”
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