Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari is about as heartfelt and pure as movies get. Adapting his childhood experiences growing up in mid-1980s rural Arkansas, Chung doesn’t merely recall the struggles that his Korean American family endured during that period but reconsiders them with a new sense of compassion and grace.
The tender retelling of his upbringing as a first-generation immigrant is all the more compelling when you factor in that Chung was likely no more than ten years old when the events of the film took place. While Chung’s script is centered around his perspective as a child, he writes every character with sympathy and specificity, calling to mind the adage that children are often more insightful and perceptive than we perhaps give them credit for.
We meet the Yi family as they tail a moving truck in their station wagon, making their way to the modest mobile home where they will soon set down their roots. When the Yis arrive, the patriarch Jacob (Steven Yeun) exits the car first, seeing the untapped potential in the vast acres of farming land that lay before them. Much more tenuous is his wife Monica (Han Ye-ri), not nearly as thrilled with their surroundings and even more apprehensive of the hard work that will be necessary to make their exodus from California worthwhile. The young David (Alan Kim) and his older sister Anne (Noel Kate Cho) may be the most excited of all, ignoring the residence’s tacky, light brown interior paneling and instead choosing to note that their house has “wheels like a big car!”
Crops certainly don’t grow overnight, so Jacob and Monica take jobs at a nearby hatchery — the former is purported to be an “expert chicken sexer” by his new superior — until their yield increases. Mom and dad’s absence during the work day brings the need for Monica’s spritely mother Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung) to move in from Korea to watch over David and Anne. Kids being kids, the pair playfully talk behind their grandma’s back in English, all while trying to stay out of a level of trouble that would warrant a stick-whipping. Thanks to a neighboring war veteran Paul (Will Patton), Jacob is able to avoid some of the rookie mistakes associated with starting one’s own farm but still faces an array of pitfalls that put more pressure on his ability to provide for his clan.
The film’s title refers to a water plant whose seeds Soon-ja scatters at the base of a nearby river. Known to produce a vegetable that has myriad culinary uses, minari grows healthily and abundantly once it settles its roots and serves as a perfect metaphor for dogged optimism that Jacob holds for his family’s future in their new surroundings.
Minari may not have a traditional antagonist but that doesn’t make the organic obstacles that occur any less challenging or the natural elements that inform the conflict any less brutal. It ultimately arrives at a truth about the immigrant experience that feels specific to this story but potentially applicable to so many others: that hardship and sacrifice may cost parents their personal lives in order for their children to build up better lives for themselves.
Bringing this salient point home is the transcendent ensemble acting, anchored by a soulful and zealous performance by Yeun as an obdurate father almost literally breaking his back for his family. Ye-ri is right there with him, taking a character who could play like a one-note nagging wife in the wrong hands but is instead given the dimension and depth that she deserves.
Portraying the surrogate for the real-life Chung as a youngster, Alan Kim gives David a cherubic craftiness and sheepish introspection that make his work nothing short of winsome.
Continuing a string of outstanding work in his young career as a film composer, Emile Mosseri lends a gorgeous musical score that aches with the possibility of unknown futures.
Thoughtful and touching in equal measure, Minari is a family drama whose ability to generate empathy seems effortless.
Also New to Streaming This Weekend
Streaming on HBO Max is Tom & Jerry, a live action/CGI comedy starring Chloë Grace Moretz and Michael Peña about the eternally feuding cat and mouse who wreak havoc on one of New York City’s most upscale hotels.
Debuting on Hulu is The United States vs. Billie Holiday, a biopic starring Andra Day and Trevante Rhodes about the legendary jazz singer and the drug addiction that tragically cut her life and career short.
Available to watch on Apple TV+ is The World’s a Little Blurry, a music documentary centered around the rising career of Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter Billie Eilish.