Minari review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
There’s a quiet grace to the somewhat slice-of-life story about a Korean family moving to Arkansas in the 1980s. The Yi family settles down on a plot of land they can call their own, living on a massive acreage that has the potential to become farmland. Some of the family is excited about this while others are unsure it’ll ever happen.
The family of four includes the hopeful father Jacob (Steven Yuen), the cautious mother Monica (Han Ye-ri), the eldest daughter Anne (Noel Kate), and the curious son David (Alan Kim). Jacob is the most excited about this endeavor, believing this is his chance to make his own way and work for himself. Monica has ample reason to be concerned. Aside from farming being a risky venture, their distance from civilization makes her scared for her children, both socially and health-wise. In particular, David has a heart murmur and he could fall ill at any time.
Another concern is just how much say Monica has in her family’s lifestyle. To make ends meet until the farm comes to be, both Jacob and Monica return to their regular job of sexing chickens. Jacob has been a pro for years but Monica still struggles to keep up with him. A Korean co-worker ensures Monica she doesn’t have to worry about meeting a high quota but her concerns are about being as capable as her husband. She worries about not being as stable on her own, as she fears that may be in her future if the farm doesn’t work out.
Trying to help out with the situation Monica’s mother coming to help watch the kids while the parents work and farm. Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung) arrives with great excitement about becoming so valued in the home. She doesn’t connect quickly with Jacob who feels that this woman is not a traditional grandma considering she doesn’t bake cookies. She does, however, like gambling and drinking Mountain Dew, just like Jacob. Eventually, she wins him over with her wise worldview that ranges everywhere from ecology to faith.
Director Lee Isaac Chung takes great care with his film to slowly let its drama and setting waft over the viewer. I like how we don’t learn what state the family is in until they arrive on their first day of work and don’t know the era until they venture to the bank for the first time. We get a sense of the personalities of the central characters but also secondary ones as well, such as the Yi’s evangelical neighbor who shows kindness but also a heavy amount of religious devotion, reserving his Sundays for hauling across around the country roads.
The Yi’s journey for the American Dream doesn’t take a predictable route either. It’s a life filled with hills and valleys, where blessings and tragedies come more at random than what may seem traditionally telegraphed. Through it all, the family bond remains a constant source that keeps things together, even in the darkest of times. There’s a scene towards the end where everything seems lost but David’s simple nature of keeping everyone together keeps things in perspective.
Minari is the type of film that eases into your heart for posing relatable characters and melancholic wonderment for the struggling working class. It doesn’t take as heavy a social route as one may expect for this type of story but it also doesn’t gloss over hardships for easy melodrama. In its own meandering manner, much is said on the nature of Korean immigrants, farm life, Christianity, and the troubles of finding a balance between the desires of children and parents. It’s an exceptional piece of American filmmaking in an area that feels rarely explored.