Quiet images of a landscape untouched by suburban sprawl glide by in the opening moments of “Minari,” as the Yi family drives down an empty road. Eventually they pull up to a mobile home that sits on acres and acres of land ready to be tilled and farmed.
Jacob (Steven Yeun) has uprooted his wife and their two small children, moving from California to Arkansas, where he intends to grow and harvest Korean produce, a crop he then hopes to sell to Asian grocers in Dallas. It’s a multipart plan that has so many potential hitches along the way, it could lead to their financial ruin.
What’s the old saying? No risk, no reward? But the risk, you hear his wife Monica (Han Ye-ri) thinking as she unhappily takes in their new surroundings. The risk.
She’s right to be worried, and this is the first of many fissures we see in their marriage. Jacob yearns for a bit of faith in his ambitions, whereas Monica wishes he understood just how isolating this plan is for the rest of the family. It’s an unresolved tension that means their children are forever overhearing the couple’s quietly fraught conversations in the front seat of the car, or their raised voices in another room at home. But there is also real love at the core of their story. And respect. And an unspoken commitment to seeing this through, whatever this is. From the get-go you are rooting for this family, with its hilariously precocious little boy David (Alan Kim) and his quieter preteen sister Anne (Noel Kate Cho), who resignedly bears the weight of an older sibling.
Writer-director Lee Isaac Chung is telling his own story here. The rough outlines and even some of the specific details are autobiographical and filtered through his memories of childhood. But he’s also considering these themes from his perspective now as an adult with a child of his own — especially what it means when a parent’s preoccupations become a family affair — and he straddles the two sides of this line so well, with wit and nuance, but also with such cutting precision.
He’s riffing on the fantasy of the American Dream — turning it over and examining it, much like Jacob as he runs his hands through the soil as if trying to see into his future — and if you think it’s odd that the Golden Globes awards body has decided this film’s story is something distinctly not American, well, you’re far from alone. Earlier this month, “Minari” was nominated in the foreign language category (the bulk of the film’s dialogue is in Korean and subtitled in English) and this is the only category in which the film qualified, a decision that ignores the reality that many immigrant families in the United States speak their native language at home. If the Golden Globes wants to pretend this isn’t part of the American experience, ironically the movie itself works as a rebuke. (That the film resonates with critics who have similar second generation immigrant experiences feels important, as well.)
The Yi family makes all kinds of adjustments settling into their new surroundings. There’s a strangeness to this place that can be alarming, or sometimes just different from what they’re used to, all of which creates a sense of limbo. The white people in town seem ignorant about anything or anyone outside their own experience, which means the family’s arrival begets a curiosity that is coated in racism. These seemingly friendly fellow churchgoers and townsfolk would proclaim shocked innocence, one suspects, were they ever challenged about of some of the awful questions and sentiments coming out of their mouths. When you’re the one on the receiving end, does it even matter if there’s malice behind it? Assimilation is one way to go, and sometimes that’s inevitable, especially for a young child, but it’s never that simple or benign.
As a result, the Yi’s have few interactions with their neighbors. Their focus is inward, on each other but also on that sprawling plot of land that David so happily clomps through in his shorts and cowboy boots. When Jacob suggests that Monica invite her mother to come from Korea to live with them, you sense her thinking, “At last, a familiar face and ally!” and the arrival of grandma (played by legendary Korean actress Youn Yuh-jung) injects all kinds of tangy humor into the family’s world.
She brings with her the memory of a country that her American born grandchildren have never known, and want no part of. Instead of broth made with ingredients from Korea (including the perennial herb known as minari) David prefers Mountain Dew — “My favorite, my favorite,” he giddily whispers as he pours a glass for breakfast, for breakfast! — and eventually, the neon carbonated drink is grandma’s preference as well, which creates a funny sort of tension with the boy. She doesn’t fit David’s concept of a doting grandmother, a mental image surely formed by hours in front of the TV. She doesn’t cook or bake. Like David, she’d rather watch TV; pro wrestling, to be exact. She doesn’t treat the boy like a delicate piece of crockery and she is all too happy to bust his chops every so often as she chuckles to herself. Don’t take life so seriously, she might as well be saying. She’s funny, an independent thinker and she’s not judgmental. I love her and I love Youn’s performance.
Jacob and Monica are too busy anyway, too preoccupied to stage manage the relationship between their youngest child and his grandmother. Agriculture is a pursuit that requires such a single-minded investment of time and thought and labor and luck — all of which also is true of filmmaking, which had to be on Chung’s mind, as well.
It’s a wonderful cast all around, and it’s especially thrilling to see how Yeun’s career has progressed over the years, from his beginnings at Second City in Chicago, to his stint on a hit TV series like “The Walking Dead,” to his chilling role as the flashy and possibly dangerous presence in the Korean psychological thriller “Burning,” to his turn as the stoically conflicted family man in “Minari.”
“Steven Yeun has beautiful Zoom face,” the writer Jay Caspian Kang noted in a recent interview with Yeun for the New York Times, which you could interpret as a superficial comment, or perhaps more meaningfully, it’s another way of saying that Yeun knows how to hold the screen and let his face register all kinds of unspoken thoughts.
Jacob may be the strong silent type, but he is not unreadable.
MPAA rating: PG-13
Running time: 1:15
Premieres: Friday in select theaters and virtual screenings via A24 at https://screeningroom.a24films.com.
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