“Minari” The Challenges of New Beginnings For a Korean-American Family

Steven Yeun, Alan S. Kim, Yuh-Jung Youn, Yeri Han, Noel Cho Director Lee Isaac Chung Credit: Josh Ethan Johnson
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At the Movies With…
Lady Beverly Cohn
Editor-at-Large Worldwide

This heartfelt, compelling film has already garnered dozens of awards, including the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, an Independent Spirit Award, and the Black Film Critics Circle Award for Best Original Screenplay.  Adding to that, are multiple Oscar nominations in several categories for Lee Isaac Chung, including

Best Picture, Director, and Original Screenplay, which he wrote.   Other members of the cast who are also up for awards include, Steven Yeun for Actor in a Leading Role, the first Asian-American actor to be nominated in that category in Oscar history, and Yuh-Jung Youn for Actress in a Supporting Role.  When faced with all these accolades, one’s expectations are extremely high and sometimes those expectations are not met.  However, I’m happy to say that the film deserves every award it has won as well as the current nominations.

MINARI_02964 Yeri Han, Steven Yeun Director: Lee Isaac Chung Credit: Josh Ethan Johnson/A24

The movie, loosely based on Chung’s own life, is a tender story about a Korean-American family that moves from California to rural Arkansas in 1980.  The dad, Jacob Yi, is portrayed by Steven Yeun, whose internal characterization is both fascinating and compelling as the myriad feelings and challenges he faces are clearly visible on his body and soul.  Jacob is determined to achieve the American Dream and purchased 50-acres of farmland.  His wife Monica, well played by Yeri Han, is filled with dismay as she sees their new home, which is akin to Army barracks.  She is also concerned about medical care for their son David, played by a really talented, adorable young Alan Kim, who makes his film debut.  His character is pivotal to the unfolding action as well as providing comic relief.  His sister Anne, nicely played by Noel Kate Cho, is a typical teenager with the angst that comes with trying to make new friends.  Ever positive, Jacob knows exactly what he wants to do and that is to plant his fields with fruits and vegetables that he can eventually sell to the growing Korean population in Oklahoma City. Despite lack of enthusiasm from his wife, his vision is clear and his determination unbridled.  To support themselves until his dream comes to fruition, they both work in a factory separating the male chicks from the female chicks.  Sorry to have to say this, but the male chicks are disposed of because they cannot reproduce, but I’ll spare you from the details of that method.  When not working at the factory, Jacob prepares his land for planting by searching for a water source and purchasing a tractor for plowing.  His ultra-religious next door neighbor Paul, wonderfully played by Will Patton, becomes Jacob’s good friend and helper.  This kind man is what you might describe as a Holy Roller so there’s lots of prayers of thanks to Jesus. At home, there are many arguments between Paul and Monica who wants to return to California with the kids, with or without her husband.  However, little by little she fixes up their home and Jacob proceeds with plowing the land.  Grandma Soon-ja, humorously played by the talented Yuh-Jung Youn, arrives on the scene much to David and Anne’s dismay.  The boy takes an instant dislike to her, which she handles in a very amusing way.  He complains that she’s not a traditional grandmother because she curses, laughs a lot, and snores. The young grandson hates her cooking and says, “She smells like Korean.”  Wanting to torment Soon-ja, this little imp brings her a mystery drink which she spits out quickly and laughing, calls him a bastard.  Jacob sends him out to get a rod with which he will be spanked but given his rebellious nature, coupled with his sense of humor, he returns with a wilted weed.  Dad forces his son to apologize, which he reluctantly does, but still insists that she is not a real grandmother.  The fields are beginning to blossom and as with any rural farm, water issues appear and solutions are sought, always with Paul praying for help from JesusGrandma and David explore the property and he spots a crawling snake that scares him and wants her to kill it.  She consoles him saying, “Things that are hidden are dangerous – better to see the snake.”  Grandma brought minari seeds* from Korea and plants them on a hill near the stream – an action that has unexpected future ramifications. With their relationship improving, David confides in her that he doesn’t want to die and she tenderly sings him to sleep, saying, “I won’t let you die.”  Good neighbor Paul is invited for dinner, following which he sprinkles holy water throughout the house to purge out the demons and cure David of his health issue.  In the meantime, the crops are becoming fruitful and Jacob makes a deal with a local distributor to sell his fruits and vegetables to Korean consumers.  Jacob’s persistence appears to be paying off but unfortunately his mother-in-law is faced with a health crisis, which is resolved with residual side effects that impact Jacob’s vision in a most catastrophic way.

Alan S. Kim, Yuh-Jung Youn Director Lee Isaac Chung Credit: Melissa Lukenbaugh/A24

This is the story of one man’s unrelenting vision of achieving the American Dream and how the family comes together in the face of extreme, unexpected adversity, catapulting them into yet another set of new beginnings.   

Director Chung assembled a top-notch technical team including: Director of Photography Lachlan Milne, who captured the changing textures of the narrative, Emile Mosseri’s music, underscoring the action, as well as Film Editing by Harry Yoon, Production Design by Yong Ok Lee, Art Direction by W. Haley Ho, Set Direction by Hanrui Wang, and Susanna Song, whose period costumes are spot on.  I would be remiss if I didn’t mentioned Brad Pitt is one of the Executive Producers, adding to a long list including, “Beautiful Boy,” “12 Years a Slave,” “The Departed,” “By the Sea,” “Eat Pray Love,”Moneyball, and “World War Z,” to name just a few.

MINARI_00096 Yeri Han, Noel Cho Director Lee Isaac Chung Credit: Melissa Lukenbaugh/A24

*Minari is a Korean, peppery herb

Distributor:  A24

Release Date:  Current

Where: Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV & other Streaming Services

Language:  English & Korean with subtitles

Running Time:  115 Minutes

Rating:  PG-13


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