Film review: ‘MINARI’ by Nick Gardener from ‘Built For Speed’

Touching drama Minari sees a young Korean family attempt to forge a new life in the alien environment of 1980’s Arkansas.  The chances of this move succeeding for the family seem minimal from the start as young mother Monica (Han Ye-ri) recoils with horror at their new home, a trailer on wheels and cinder blocks sitting in the middle of a huge field.  Also, their young boy David (Alan Kim) suffers from a heart murmur that prevents him doing what most children would like to do including running around with abandon in their new open spaces.  The stern, stubborn and at times intimidating father Jacob (Steven Yuen) is, however, determined to make this move work by transforming the land into a thriving Korean vegetable farm which would allow him to ditch his current job as a chicken sexer at a local poultry factory.  To help look after David and tween daughter Anne (Noel Kate Cho) they invite Monica’s elderly mother (Youn Yuh-jung) to live with them, a move that brings mixed fortunes.

With Minari (the name of an apparently resilient Korean herb that grandma plants) director Lee Isaac Chung has created a simultaneously familiar and unusual take on the American dream.  The ‘fish out of water’ scenario is a common one throughout cinema but here the new environment and culture aren’t the biggest challenges; almost none of the Arkansas locals display prejudice toward the new arrivals.  In fact, the most antipathy toward any family member comes from the two children dismissing grandma’s Korean traditions and attitudes.  The real challenge is for the parents to stop their fracturing self-esteem and personal disappointment crushing them and for the children to try and cope with their parents’ increasingly volatile relationship.  Through his depiction of this family stress, Chung immerses the film in a constant if low-key tension.  Even when crops are flourishing and the family are befriending locals, there’s a pervasive sense that something bad is going to happen.

The film works as well as it does largely because of the excellent cast.  As David, Alan Kim is a wonderful mix of innocence, cheekiness and a youngster’s typical blunt honesty.  As the disillusioned mother, Han Ye-ri impressively carries much of the film’s emotional weight.  Her screaming matches with husband Steven Yuen are unnervingly real and convey the desperation of someone lamenting where her life has wound up and fearing for her children’s future.  Youn Yuh-jung is also terrific as grandma making her wise but also irreverent and funny; as little David laments, she’s not a typical grannie, she doesn’t bake cookies, she swears and she sledges the kids when they play card games. There’s also a great turn from Will Patton as Jacob’s unusual evangelical Christian farm worker, Paul, who lapses into incantations while planting veges and drags a full-size cross through the streets on Sundays.

As well as a compelling drama, this film is a sumptuous visual and aural experience with cinematographer Lachlan Milne’s wonderful scenes of bucolic Arkansas backed by the swelling refrains of Emile Mosseri’s evocative soundtrack.

The story here may be a little limited in scope as the family’s circumstances don’t greatly evolve throughout the film and parts are a little predictable.  Still, the way this film captures the family’s constant struggle and occasional joy should prove very real and moving for many viewers.

Nick’s rating: ***1/2

Genre: Drama.

Classification: PG.

Director(s): Lee Isaac Chung.

Release date: 18th Feb 2021.

Running time: 115 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast.

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