MINARI – Review
Over the last couple of national election cycles, a topic of much discussion and often heated debate has been immigration. In light of the impassionate rhetoric, many have neglected the human, personal side of the issue. it’s sometimes called the “immigrant experience”, the old “planting roots in rich new soil” idea that’s been around since our country (and a big reason the USA began in the first place) started. The movies have mined this topic many times during its century or so, from AMERICA AMERICA to MOSCOW ON THE HUDSON. Now audiences will be treated to another family’s fable, told from an often neglected culture’s perspective, and set in the fairly recent past for just a seasoning of nostalgia. And it’s mainly told from a child’s perspective as he adjusts to his new home while trying to cling to his own land, part of which is another arrival, the “wonderful, wonderful” plant called MINARI.
The time is somewhere in the middle 1980s. The place, a dirt road in rural Arkansas. The Yi family, split between a rental moving truck and the family station wagon, are about to see their new house. In between a big grassy field and the forest sit a mobile trailer home, its wheels held in place by big blocks of wood and concrete. Thirty-something father Jacob (Steven Yeun) is full of hope. His wife Monica (Yari Han)…not so much. For their two kids, pre-teen Anne (Noel Cho) and especially seven-year-old David (Alan Kim), it’s their new locale for adventure. Monica and Jacob met and married in their native South Korea, and after having Anne they emigrated to California. There they amassed a “nest egg” via Jacob’s skills as a “sexer” (separating the male and female baby chicks) at a factory-style hatchery. Now with little David, papa Yi plans to farm out the property by planting the vegetables for Korean foods and selling them to major markets (Dallas, Oklahoma City, Memphis) with big Korean immigrant populations. But to make ends meet the parents find “sexing” work at the local hatchery, as Jacob devotes all of the weekends and spare hours to his farming efforts. Luckily he soon acquires a “hired hand” after purchasing a tractor/tiller from an eccentric (lots of “talking in tongues”) named Paul (Will Patton). Mama Monica though continues to pressure Jacob to move them into a home in town, mainly to be closer to the hospital as she frets over David’s heart condition (a “murmur” that tires him quickly). His compromise, bringing in her mother Soonja (Yuh-Jung Youn). The idea of sharing his room with her upsets David, who has never met his “Grandma”. Slowly they begin to form a bond (mainly a love of mischief, TV wrestling, and Mountain Dew soda pop) as Jacob works hard to achieve his dream. Unfortunately, this adds to the tension between him and his wife. Can the two resolve their many issues and provide a stable prosperous home for the kids and their “Granny”?
A very talented and mostly unknown (to film audiences) acting ensemble breathes life into this 20th-century family fable. TV audiences will recall Yeun as the much-missed Glenn Rhee of AMC’s “The Walking Dead”. Here he gets to truly stretch his formidable dramatic skills (plus he’s an executive producer) as the patriarch struggling to hold his marriage together even as he faces daunting challenges in going for his version of “the American dream”. Through his weary eyes, Jacob looks at his bride with longing and regret, wanting to ease her sadness and reignite the passion they had shared so long ago. Han is a superb sparring partner to him, making her concerns and complaints clear right from the very start (with the mobile home, it’s disgust at first sight), unable to grasp her mate’s optimism, while trying to control her growing anxiety over her little angel’s health (“Don’t run, David” is her main mantra). That sweet smiling guy, David is played with a natural innocence by Alan Kim, still possess an infectious child-like wonder, as the world is still shiny and new full of new places to explore. He’s still a lovable rascal as he pushes for his independence while still often hiding behind his parents when faced with a friendly stranger. Cho as big sister Anne is more tempered as she enters young adulthood, trying to help in supervising her lil’ bro while still joining him in play. However David’s true “partner-in-crime’ maybe be his “grandma” a role that fits Youn like a glove as she steals nearly every scene. Though she hasn’t met her grandson and endures his taunts (“You’re not a real grandma! You don’t bake cookies”) and pranks ( a special cup of “water from the mountains”), she’s his defender and buffer to Jacob’s harch disciplines. But she’s also tough with her own daughter (“Why you make the kid do this crap?’) all while teaching the kids to play cards (and curse) behind her back. Youn’s a delight but she also breaks our heart as her fate instigates a final act tragedy. Also notable is the quirky performance of Patton as the fervent “true believer” Paul, whose odd behavior (his Sunday church service is toting a big wooden cross along the country roads) baffles Jacob, though he’s a big help and even a cheerleader for the farm dream.
Director/screenwriter Lee Isaac Chung brings a warm autobiographical feel to the film, as the events could have happened to any family of any origin. Putting the camera at David’s level, Chung really conveys the child’s eye view of this weird, but wondrous new world. The small patch of woods nearby is another planet, while the Yi family’s visit to a local church seems as though they’ve entered another dimension. This is especially true as the locals innocently offend while trying to be welcoming (“Why is your face so flat?” “Tell me if I’m speaking Korean…ching, chong, choom…”). While the kids have fun, they also must deal with new fears. The first night of tornado-producing storms is true nightmare fuel as is overhearing a loud parental argument (they do respond by inscribing “don’t fight” on paper airplanes they toss into the living room). We can almost feel the baking heat of those sizzling summer days with insects providing a smothering chirping bed of noise. Chung has served up a true slice of life saga, full of triumphs and setbacks, of new friendships and love that is lost and regained through tragedy and unexpected acts of brave generosity. In a word, just like the plant, MINARI makes the mundane magical.
3.5 out of 4
MINARI opens in theatres everywhere and screens exclusively in the St. Louis area at Landmark’s Plaza Frontenac cinemas and at the Hi-Pointe Theatre. It can also be screened virtually through cinemastlouis.org. via the A24 screening room.