Sometimes a movie comes along that manages to be a gift from the movie gods and “Minari” is that gift. Writer and director Lee Isaac Chung assembles an immigrant story while tapping into memories of his own childhood of a Korean’s family’s pursuit of the Great American Dream. Executive produced by Oscar winner Brad Pitt and “Minari” star Steven Yuen (“The Walking Dead”). Chung’s film is full of personal touches in a warm, witty, beautiful and smart 1980s period piece.
“Minari” which was shot in 25 days, has recently made an appearance at the 2020 Oscars and was nominated for six academy awards. Nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Lead Actor for Steven Yuen, Best Screenplay, Best Score and Best Supporting Actress for which Yuh-Jung Youn took home the films only Oscar win.
“Minari” is the story of the Korean American Yi family as they arrive in rural Arkansas from California, where Jacob (Steven Yeun “The Walking Dead”) and his wife Monica (Yeri Han) were barely carving out a living working as chicken sexers, a mind-numbing job where you spend all day manually determining the gender of newborn baby chicks. Over Monica’s adamant resistance, Jacob and his family, including adolescent daughter Anne (Noel Kate Cho) and their 6 year-old son David (Alan Kim) find their new dwelling to be long but an un-sturdy looking mobile home that sits on about 50 acres of inexpensive land. It’s acres of land that Jacob intends to turn into a farm where he’ll grow Korean fruits and vegetables and sell them to markets across Arkansas and the bordering state of Texas.
As Jacob struggles to grow a farm on the land and find water for a well, Monica continues to question the move and finds struggle in the lack of a community for her and the children. There’s hardly a neighbor in sight and the few Korean Americans in the area live relatively far away. Instead of director Lee Isaac Chung only focusing on agriculture hardships, he studies the strain of family and marriage. Jacob and Monica are finding their communication lost over last few years, as they both want different things for their family.
With the farm a long way in turning a profit, with Jacob and Monica working long hours at the local chicken sexing plant, they need help watching the kids and so they bring Monica’s mother Soonja, over from Korea to move in with them. Anne is polite to her grandmother, but David, who is younger than his sister doesn’t even remember her and is embarrassed by her (he says she “smells Korea”), he hates the native dishes she cooks and is openly mean and in one sequence is even cruel to Soonja.
Soonja has a wicked sense of humor, she loves to play card games and drink Mountain Dew (David’s favorite drink that he calls “Mountain Water”) and she loves watching wrestling on TV. But she’s going to keep on looking after these kids and loving them. And whether they like it or not, Soonja is going to keep on expressing her opinions on the life that Jacob and Monica are currently living.
The real heart of the picture belongs to David and the arc of bonding between his grandma and him, is a real thing of beauty. As Soonja helps him overcome fear and to understand the world around him. From the moment Yuh-Jung Youn enters the movie as grandma Soonja, she steals the film and turns in a dazzling comedic and dramatic performance. It’s no surprise that she won the best supporting actress Oscar. The first time a Korean actress has ever won an acting Oscar.
Steven Yeun is beyond magnificent in what is clearly the best work of his career and absolutely earned that best actor Oscar nomination. His nomination has become the first Asian-American and first person of East Asian descent to be nominated for the Academy Award for best lead actor. As Yuen’s wife Monica is Yeri Han (my new celebrity crush) who is so magnificent that she was overlooked for an Oscar nomination.
Both Yuen and Han have great chemistry and play off each other to a believable job of depicting a couple who have been through the ringer. Alan Kim as David and Noel Kate Cho as Anne deliver natural, believable and scene stealing performances by two young actors, who aren’t giving any “kid actor” performances. This is the ensemble cast of the year and the best since 2019’s “The Farewell” with star Awkwafina.
Chung isn’t shy about raising the dramatic stakes, giving David a heart condition that leads to one heartbreaking scene as Monica challenges Jacob’s priorities and says that he’s more concerned about the farm than his family. There are multiple setbacks, maybe one to many for some viewers but Chung expertly explores marriage, maturity, family and childhood. “Minari” has a lot of misery, but Chung always injects a lot of heart into it. It’s a real special film, a cinematic gift to us all and one of the best and most perfect films I’ve ever seen. Please see it for yourself.
GRADE: ★★★★★ (5 out of 5)