The Yi family has come to Arkansas. Immigrants from Korea by way of California, they’ve relocated in hopes of discovering the American Dream. What exactly that dream will look like is still a mystery to everyone but father Jacob (Steven Yuen).
Turns out to be a farm: 50 acres and a mobile home far from town. Mother Monica (Yeri Han) thought she was getting five acres, a nice-sized garden, but Jacob’s got notions. Thirty thousand Koreans emigrate to the U.S. every year, he says, and they miss Korean produce. So, he’ll grow it and sell it in nearby Dallas. Maybe Tulsa.
It’s not a bad plan, but as my Irish and German ancestors discovered, farming ain’t easy street. Water for the crops is hard to come by, money is harder, and the heat is smothering. It might be an improvement to city life in Korea—Jacob seems to think it is—but we’re far from milk and honey out here.
Written and directed by Lee Isaac Chung, Minari has its roots in autobiography with 7-year-old David (Alan S. Kim) standing in for Chung. The moments with David work the best or, at least, feel the most authentic but Chung seems more interested in understanding Jacob, a man who thinks constantly but communicates rarely.
Jacob has a helper, Paul (Will Patton), a poor, religious man who blesses the crops when Jacob isn’t looking and carries a wooden cross down the road on Sundays. The cause for his penitence goes unanswered. He tells Jacob he fought in the Korean War when they first meet but never mentions it again. He harbors no ill will toward the Yis, even expressing affection for Monica’s cooking.
(Side note: The best scene in the movie is when Monica’s mother, played by Yuh-Jung Youn, visiting from Korean, surprises Monica with one grocery sack full of chili powder and one full of anchovies. Monica is so overjoyed she cries.)
Back to Paul: He’s a believer, but Patton takes him just slightly over the line into caricature territory. His presence kind of feels like Patton was filming a Terrence Malick movie nearby and wandered into this movie. There’s a lot in Minari that feels the touch of Malick: untethered cameras sweeping through pastoral fields, swelling symphonies, minimal dialogue, and—according to Steven Yuen—a poetic voiceover that was axed in the eleventh hour.
Now, about that title: Minari is the Korean name for edible water celery, a bitter herb commonly used in cooking. A blog from the Los Angeles Times points out, “minari can be hard to find, but it’s easy to raise.” That’s a pretty good metaphor for the Yi family. There are only 13 Koreans in this out-of-the-way town, but all work hard. Eventually, success will flourish. And when Grandma plants minari brought from Korea, she does so in an out-of-the-way part of the woods. It, too, takes root and flourishes.
Minari is a sweet and honest family drama that stumbles in the third act with a plot contrivance that seems obvious and unnecessary. It smacks of cinematic climax and pulls the movie from languid observation into storytelling by numbers. That might explain why Minari—for all its strengths and positives—feels forgettable. Watching Minari makes you feel connected, human even. To observe the struggle of others, empathize with their plight, and smile at their triumphs. But it also feels fleeting.
Written and directed by Lee Isaac Chung
Produced by Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Christina Oh
Starring: Steven Yeun, Yeri Han, Yuh-Jung Youn, Alan S. Kim, Noel Cho, Will Patton
A24 Films, Rated PG-13, Running time 115 minutes, Coming soon.