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Midway through Lee Isaac Chung’s 80’s set drama Minari, a South Korean grandmother and her grandson find themselves waddling through a creek near their new house in rural America, singing a song made up on the spot praising minari seeds, and how they flourish wherever they are placed and are easy to grow.
The seeds’ durability seems to directly contradict with the family and their present living situation, which consists of a trailer-home and having to choose between earning a livelihood or drinking water. This comes after ambitious patriarch Jacob (Steven Yeun, Burning) – determined to be more than just a chicken sexer – relocates the clan from California to Arkansas to try capture that elusive American Dream. The resulting drama and its portrayal of the immigrant struggle is touching, effective, and rewarding, to say the least.
The cast makes this movie click in a way that is rare to come by on-screen and precious to hold onto. Yeun demands empathy as the head of the family who wants to work on his own terms and provide for his loved ones while also seeking to be happy. Han Ye-Ri (Age of Youth) is simply incredible as his anxious and energetic wife, stuck between wanting her husband to succeed but also unable to stave off her worry he won’t.
Kim Alan as their shy son on the precipice of two cultures puts in a stellar performance along with his on-screen sister Noel Cho. The bow on this perfect cast is Yoon Yuh-Jung (Hindsight, The Housemaid) as the maternal grandmother, who transforms into the ahjumma we all wish we knew in our lives.
The film hums along at a low-key pace reflective of real life as our characters show their exhaustion at the physical and mental labour required to settle on a farm and integrate into a new society. Questions about dreams, family, camaraderie, duty, and obligations swirl around them as they try to navigate the yellow and green landscape, the non-Korean church, and the whimsical neighbor they find themselves trapped with.
Sharp observations about the immigrant experience are folded into this movie; it’s left to the viewer to observe and pick them up. Minari is not here to preach anything but simply tell a story. I can say with complete confidence that the two-hour long story is completely worth your time.