Minari (2021)

6 Jun

Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I’m not usually one to spend $19.99 for premier access on-demand for a new film (especially if the rental only lasts for two days). So, a few months ago, I went back to a movie theater to see a film called “Minari,” which was about to receive numerous accolades. It was my first time inside a theater since before the COVID-19 pandemic. And I couldn’t have asked for a better new movie.

“Minari” was one of the top awards contenders and has been referred to by critics as one of the best films of 2020…but seeing as how it wasn’t released to the public until February of 2021, I’m counting it as a 2021 film. (My mind is already made up–this film will appear on my best-of-2021 list. Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert did the same thing for “Being There” and “The Black Stallion” when those movies weren’t released publicly until the following year.)

Anyway, simply put, “Minari” is a beautiful film.

Written and directed by Lee Isaac Chung, whose semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story is told here, “Minari” is centered on a Korean-American family that moves to rural Arkansas in the ’80s to achieve the American Dream. Jacob Yi (Steven Yeun in the best performance of his career) wants to grow Korean foods in 50 acres of inexpensive land and sell them to markets wherever he can. The family’s new dwelling is a mobile home with quite a leap to get up to the front door. His wife Monica (Yeri Han) isn’t too fond of the idea of living here because they live out in the middle of nowhere with no neighbors and she misses her South Korean home and the family’s prior home in California, where she and Jacob were barely making a living as chicken testers. (They work in a hatchery near their Arkansas home, determining the gender of newborn baby chicks.) Jacob and Monica’s children are 10-year-old Anne (Noel Kate Cho) and 7-year-old David (Alan Kim)–little David serves as a stand-in for director Chung and a conduit for the audience as well, as a lot of the film is seen through his eyes.

This Asian-American family isn’t ostracized by the community when they attend church services and social events–the locals are more fascinated by and curious about them. Once a kid roughly David’s age gets past the strangeness of seeing an Asian person in this town, he quickly becomes friends with David. The closest thing Jacob has to a friend is his eccentric evangelical farmhand: Paul (Will Patton), who seems very strange but is a dedicated hard worker and has nothing but respect and admiration for Jacob. (I always loved Will Patton’s work, but this may be one of his most memorable roles. He’s amazing here.)

A lot of the film is watching this family adjust to these new surroundings. How do they prepare for a tornado when their home is in danger of being sucked away if it touches down? How do they get water if they don’t want to pay for it to save funds? What about Monica and Jacob’s marriage when they have conflicting ideals? What about David’s heart condition when the nearest hospital is an hour away? Can Jacob handle both hard work in farming and his job at the hatchery? (There’s a wonderful transformation that comes when we see he isn’t as fast at his job as he used to be.) What happens to the male baby chicks in the hatchery…actually, I probably would’ve been better off staying ignorant about that.

And so on. It’s a wonderful slice of life. And it gets even better when Monica’s mother leaves South Korea to live with the family. This is Soonja (played brilliantly by Yuh-jung Youn), who practically steals the movie whenever she’s on-screen. This character is the wacky-hilarious-grandma you’ve read about in many screenplays, but you haven’t seen her in a movie quite like this. There’s a lot of laughs and a great big heart to her. And I love the relationship she has with her grandson David, who hates her at first (at one point, he’s very mean to her face and then…well, you’ll have to find out) and grows to love her because she loves him regardless.

I love, LOVE this movie. “Minari” was a very special treat and a truly heartwarming tale of family and ambition. It’s superbly acted, wonderfully shot, and written and directed with a great amount of passion and heart by Lee Isaac Chung.

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