What a wonderful gift it is when a movie sets us down in a specific time and place and we forget the world around us because we’re immediately invested in THIS world — and that’s most certainly the case with writer-director Lee Isaac Chung’s semi-autobiographical “Minari,” a warm, witty and wise 1980s period piece about one immigrant family’s pursuit of the Great American Dream.
We pick up the story of the Korean American Yi family as they arrive in rural Arkansas from California, where Jacob (Steven Yeun) 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. (The females are kept for eggs and meat, while the males are, um, not kept.) Over Monica’s adamant opposition, Jacob and the family, including adolescent daughter Anne (Noel Kate Cho) and her 6-year-old brother David (Alan Kim), have moved to a patch of land in the middle of Arkansas. Their new dwelling is a not-particularly-sturdy-looking mobile home, sitting on about 50 acres of inexpensive 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 in the bordering state of Texas.
As Jacob struggles to till the land and find water for a well, Monica continues to question the wisdom of the move and bemoans the lack of a community for her and the children, as there’s hardly a neighbor in sight, and the few Korean-Americans in the area live relatively far away. When the Yi family attends church and the post-service social, they’re not exactly ostracized so much as regarded as objects of curiosity. A young country boy asks David an ignorant and racist question about his appearance, but David’s reply is so disarming, they become instant friends. Meanwhile, Jacob reluctantly hires an evangelical neighbor named Paul (the great character actor Will Patton), who speaks in tongues as he prays for their farming success. Paul seems borderline crazy, especially when Jacob spots him on the side of the road one Sunday, trudging along with a crucifix — but he’s a hard worker and he has genuine affection and admiration for Jacob. A more loyal semi-crazy evangelical farmhand neighbor you will never find.
With the nascent farm a long way (maybe forever) from turning a profit, Jacob and Monica are working long shifts sexing chicks at a local plant and they need help watching the kids, so they bring Monica’s mother, Soonja, over from Korea to move in with them. From the moment Yuh-jung Youn enters the picture as Soonja, this is her movie and she turns in a dazzling comedic/dramatic performance you’ll never forget. What a force she is, speaking her mind without filter every waking moment and imposing her personality on everyone. Anne is polite to her grandmother, but David, who is so young he doesn’t even remember her, is embarrassed by her (he says she “smells Korean”), hates the native dishes she cooks and is openly mean and in one case even cruel to Soonja.
The thing is, Soonja has zero bleeps to give, as the saying goes (without the bleep). She has a wicked sense of humor and she loves to play card games and drink Mountain Dew (David’s favorite) and watch TV, and she’s going to keep on looking after these kids and loving them whether they like it or not, and she’s going to keep on expressing her opinions to Jacob and Monica, and if they didn’t want that, why did they bring her over in the first place? Even after Soonja suffers a stroke and is seriously incapacitated, she’s a force to be reckoned with.
“Minari” isn’t shy about revving up the dramatic stakes. Little David has a heart condition, and in one heartbreakingly bittersweet scene, Monica challenges Jacob’s priorities, saying he’s more concerned about the farm than his family — and Jacob can’t convincingly argue she’s wrong. Multiple setbacks with the farm threaten to tear apart the very fabric of the family, until something truly catastrophic happens, and … well. See it for yourself. Please see it for yourself.
It would be impossible to compete with Yuh-jung Youn’s scene-stealing electricity, and wisely, nobody tries. Steven Yeun and Yeri Han do a magnificent job of depicting a couple who have been through the rigors in more than a decade together and find themselves at a crossroads where it’s an open question as to whether they’ll grow old together or take separate paths. Alan Kim as David and Noel Kate Cho as Anne deliver natural, believable performances. No “kid actor” flashy stuff from either.
Writer-director Chung and the production team have delivered a sepia-toned memory piece that never sugarcoats the culture clashes in and out of the Yi household and yet remains hopeful in tone throughout, reminding us of the power of family and of the Great American Dream.