Yearning to own a small patch of land and be more than a chicken sexer, the ambitious paterfamilias, Jacob Yi, relocates his Korean-American family: sceptical wife, Monica, and their children, David and Anne, from California to 1980s rural Arkansas, to start afresh and capture the elusive American Dream. However, new beginnings are always challenging, and to find out what is best for the family, let alone start a 50-acre farm to grow and sell Korean fruits and vegetables, is easier said than done. But, amid sincere promises, cultural unease, fleeting hopes, and the ever-present threat of financial disaster, Jacob is convinced that he has found their own slice of Eden in the rich, dark soil of Arkansas. Can grandma Soon-ja's humble but resilient minari help the Yi family figure out their place in the world?Written by
Most films that score high on my personal rating system include a moment where I'm compelled to pay attention. A moment where I say, "I'm in, let's go". One of the first scenes in Minari is of Jacob telling his young son that a man needs to find his place in the world where he can be useful. This is said as they watch the ashes of young roosters rising from an incinerator at a chicken farm. "I'm in."
Minari told a story I hadn't heard before. This is likely because it was written and directed by Lee Isaac Chung, whose own life was loosely portrayed in David- the young boy who watched the chickens burn with his dad. It's a story about a young Korean family who moves to Arkansas to start over. After a bumpy start, Grandma moves in. I won't say anything more about the plot, as not to spoil its uniqueness. More than most films about the American immigrant experience, this story is not just about the resilience of the immigrant, but the resilience of family. This is shown through its titular image, the Korean herb minari, an herb that is distinctly Korean and is able to thrive wherever it is planted.
It's an immigrant story through and through. I was excited to see that the film was done mostly in Korean, with only maybe 25% in English, further challenging western audiences to explore non-English films. The score, composed by Emile Mosseri (the same guy who composed the heartbreaking score for The Last Black Man in San Fransisco) captured this same theme with skill. The score was incredibly stylized, featuring an unmistakably western and eastern blend of musicality that I had never heard before. The music in Minari was a feature in itself, adding its own feeling to the story that could not be expressed in a screenplay alone. The screenplay, by the way, was a masterpiece that worked seamlessly with the score.
Perhaps my favorite part of the film was that I had no idea where it was going, and that's a good thing. I was able to pick up on key themes of the story, but not once did I find myself waiting for the next checkpoint of a cookie cutter narrative. Nor did I feel lost at any point. Rather, Chung had early on in the film earned my trust as a story teller.
Of all of the performances in the film, the standout was Yuh-Jung Youn who played Soonja the Grandmother. This is certainly the kind of performance I would anticipate being nominated for an Oscar. Hopefully we won't see another snub like we saw with Shuzhen Zhao last year in The Farewell. What made her performance so memorable was that most of her screen time was opposite seven-year-old Alan Kim. Kim was another of the brightest spots in the film. When the movie opened on Kim in the back seat of the car, the audience response was immediate affection. Kim was a natural. Stephen Yeun and Yeri Han also gave outstanding performances, making this one of the strongest cast ensembles I've seen in a very long time.
I hope Minari goes on to receive the critical attention it deserves, after winning the two biggest awards at Sundance. I'll be campaigning for it all the way up to award season next year.
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