“Daddy is going to make a big garden.”
There exists an innocence to childhood, the belief in one’s parents and their invincibility and endless strength. Minari is the story of a family as seen through the eyes of a little child, blissfully oblivious to the complex world he inhabits.
Set in 1980s Arkansas, Jacob (Steven Yeun) and Monica Yi (Han Ye-Ri) uproot their Korean-American family from California in pursuit of the American dream: Jacob wants to build a farm for Korean vegetables, sensing an opportunity as more and more Koreans immigrate to America. Monica isn’t sold; she was comfortable in their more urban setting and questions why they couldn’t build a small farm in California. Here Jacob’s ambition is laid bare: five acres in California isn’t a farm, it’s a hobby.
They end up in a double-wide trailer on a wide swath of land, with their ailing son David (Alan Kim) and pre-teen daughter Anne (Noel Kate Cho), and are soon joined by Monica’s elderly Korean mother Soon-Ja (a captivating turn from Youn Yuh-jung). Both Jacob and Monica work full-time sexing chickens at the local hatchery, while Jacob spends every other waking moment building his nascent farm, spending all the money they have and some they don’t in pursuit of his goal.
Largely in Korean, Minari (which takes its name from an East Asian plant and a minor plot point) is a slow, quiet movie that continuously subverts expectations at every turn. You expect to see racism, death, and loss — all foreshadowed or telegraphed early — but Minari doesn’t take these roads. Most films would have milked them, but Minari finds beauty in something quieter, more primal.
Ostensibly a (family of) fish out of water tale — Minari surprisingly mines little moments that feel universal — the boring parental obligation to attend church; the unfamiliarity of grandma and the foreign (literal, in this case) traditions she holds dear (and the distinct smells of grandma’s house). The helpless feeling as a bystander to mom and dad’s explosive fights, with almost no understanding as to what the fight is about. For a movie largely devoid of major moments, these small moments feel achingly real.
Minari continues the unexpected ascent by Yeun in his post-Walking Dead career; here he’s quiet and resolute, conveying his uncertainty with soulful looks or telling asides. The rest of the cast excels: Han Ye-Ri as Monica, barely containing her simmering rage, and Youn Yuh-jung as the subdued, moving grandmother. Coming on the heels of Parasite, which won several Oscars while noticeably receiving no acting nominations for its phenomenal cast, one wonders if Minari will reap the rewards of the trail Parasite blazed.
Minari is anchored by Lee Isaac Chung’s delightful direction, who with a deft hand knows just when to linger and when to let the top-notch cinematography tell the story. It’s accompanied by a wonderfully haunting and often rapturous score. And the film features a fantastic turn by always-reliable Will Patton as the Yi’s farmhand neighbor and spiritual guide, in a minor role that stays with you long after.
The stakes are low here, and the message is the universal experience of family. But as the film builds to its unexpected and incendiary climax, it delivers a film where even in quiet moments, it’s increasingly difficult to look away.