MINARI is a powerful contemplation of family, faith, and the American Dream. Seen through the lens of 7-year-old David (Alan S. Kim in a stunning, unselfconscious turn), whose Korean-born parents have moved him, his older sister Anne (Noel Cho), and eventually their grandmother (scene-stealing Youn Yuh-jung) to rural 1980s Arkansas in search of a life that is about more than just getting by.
Things are tense from the start, with the quietly stunned astonishment on the face of David’s mother, Monica (Han Ye-ri) when she seems the mobile home that her husband, Jacob (Steven Yuen), has purchased along with 50 acres of what he calls the best farmland in America. Coming from the city, both in Korea and in California, their last place of residence, all Monica can see is the emptiness of the land, and the cheapness of the dwelling. Jacob, though, sees a dream. His own Garden of Eden where he grows money and answers to no one. The kids take note of their parent’s disagreement, which festers below the surface, cropping up in conversations about money and David’s heart condition. Filmmaker Lee Isaac Chung goes beyond the ordinary by also showing the deep attachment Jacob and Monica have for one another, and in the most authentic ways possible. This is a couple that is not physically or verbally demonstrative, but Han and Yuen capture the unmistakable emotional intimacy there. It comes across in a thousand tiny moments of daily life, the emotional intimacy in the way Monica helps Jacob wash his hair when he’s pulled one too many muscles in the garden, and a compliment from Jacob at another time that takes Monica by delighted surprise that registers lightly but unmistakably on her face.
The couple work at a local chicken farm, sexing chicks as they come in from the hatchery. The females are kept, the males, deemed useless by the company, are incinerated, in a very tidy metaphor about capitalism. The trope of black smoke coming from the chicken farm serves as an impetus, and puts the viewer squarely in his camp, though not without leaving a great deal of sympathy for Monica, a woman whose own dreams shrank to size of the hole in her beloved son’s heart. She sees the hour-long drive to the nearest hospital if his heart gives out, and the money they have saved going out to start the garden with no guarantee of a return.
To please Monica, the family throw themselves into local church life, with resulting interactions with the locals that bespeak ignorance rather than racism, while still being difficult to watch. Jacob also sends for her Monica’s mother, a tough woman with a foul mouth and a huge heart who arrives from Korea with anchovies, chili powder, and complete adoration for the grandson she’s meeting for the first time. It’s not mutual, and David’s disappointment over Grandma not being like other grandmothers (she can’t bake) fuels a test of wills and light comic relief as she refuses to take rejection for an answer. She also arrives with seeds for the minari of the title, traditional Korean herb that can be food as well as medicine, not to mention its ability to thrive given the right environment. Yes, another metaphor, but an extremely apt one.
The cinematography echoes Jacob’s love for this place, full of golden sunlight, lush greens, and a vista that looks a Edenic as Jacob’s vision for it. The pace is as deliberate as a lazy Arkansas summer afternoon, but the story never drags, using the minutiae of everyday life to enrich the action, making even the smallest supporting role rich, even intriguing when it comes to the local dowser. Dismissed by Jacob as an un-Korean pursuit, he has a different reaction to Paul (Will Patton), a grizzled garrulous Korean War veteran who speaks in tongues, performs exorcisms, and carries a cross on Sundays. Pairing him with Jacob, comparing and contrasting personalities with their faith in things unseen, is genius.
MINARI has the peppery crunch of its eponymous Korean herb, but also the satisfying flavor. Presented without sentiment, this story about the persistence of hope throws obstacles in the path of its family, but rewards them with a miracle that is not what they wanted, but exactly what they needed.