This film about a Korean family that moves to Arkansas in the early 1980s to start their own farm, engages you right from the word go. The lush green landscape is a character too in this one as it decides the fate of this family and their American dream. It may seem like a classic immigrant story but Minari is more than that. What makes it unique is its finer details and evocation of human emotions each one of us can relate with.
Streaming on Amazon Prime Videos, writer-director Lee Isaac Chung’s film draws on his own life. It is based on his growing up days on a farm in Arkansas. And every scene has that vividness and familiarity as if one is has lived through that time. Steven Yeun as Jacob is the family head. Monica (Yer Han) is his wife and mother of two American-born children, a sincere and responsible daughter Anne (Neol Kate Cho) and six-year-old son David (Alan S Kim) who has a weak heart. They have come from California where Jacob and Monica worked as chicken sexers, separating baby chicks by gender at a hatchery. Tired of this job, Jacob moves to Arkansas town to live his dream of starting a 50-acre farm there. Disappointed with Jacob’s decision, living in a trailer is not what Monica considers normal. Tension simmers between the two of them that explodes more than often as the story unspools. The dream of growing real Korean vegetables of the Korean immigrants who yearn for a taste of home comes at a price. Isolation to begin with. No friends. No church to visit, no cultural exchange. These are real problems for Monica who wants to support her husband but prefers a city life. Their problem is met with a solution when Jacob agrees to let her mother come from Korea to live with them.
Enters Yuh-Jung Youn as Soonja. She brings life to the otherwise struggling family and those little comforts from the land called home. When she hands over the Korean chili flakes and anchovies, it not only moves Monica but is a scene that will resonate with everyone living in another city or country. However, for David, Soonja is not a ‘real grandmother’ for she doesn’t bake cookies, wears men’s underwear and is comfortable with profanity. He is not willing to share his room with Soonja because he says, ‘Grandma smells of Korea’. In no time this unconventional grandma makes way to David’s heart. Together, they go to plant some Minari seeds. Minari is Korean water celery that is resilient, exists in abundance, can grow in any condition and nourishes the land where it grows. In the film, we see a Korean immigrant family growing their roots, facing harsh conditions but staying strong. This story is poignant, heartfelt and at times even funny. But most importantly, it is real to its core. So many situations and conversations ring true. Human relations, their complexities, the will to overcome, to flourish no matter what, will strike a universal chord.
Every performance is power-packed, there is a hero in every character. We empathise with Jacob and feel his quandaries. We feel Monica’s anguish as she struggles with her fears yet stands by her husband. The live wire granny strikes seriousness so subtly and evokes equal laughter. Anne, who acts older than her age, understands her mother and cares for her baby brother. Even supporting actor Will Patton, who plays Jacob’s farmhand Paul, makes you stop and think. His role is essential for the narrative as any other character. But who steals the show is David. This little kid who deals with a hole in his heart, wins ours with his captivating smile and innocence.