MINARI is a rightly critically acclaimed family drama from writer-director Lee Isaac Chung. He tells a highly personal story of a family of Korean-American immigrants struggling to make a living on a farm in 1980s Arkansas. The film is never sentimental but full of genuine heart. It is suffused with quietly powerful performances and complemented by a score and photography that give a feeling of melancholy but also hope.
The movie stars Steven Yeun (OKJA) as Daniel, the paterfamilias who moves his nonplussed family to a scrappy farm and a new home that's basically a mobile home set up on bricks. His wife Monica (Yeri Han) tries to make the best of it and resigns herself to her miserable job checking the sex of baby chicks and perennially worried that her young son David's heart condition will worsen. For most of this film most of what she utters are warnings to David not to run. Big sister Anne (Noel Cho) is a similarly protective presence.
The mood of the film takes a turn when grandma turns up from Korea laden with the comforts of home - chilli, Korean vegetables, and Minari seeds. The most emotion we get from Monica is when she almost breaks down in tears at the prospect of being able to cook proper Korean food. Meanwhile grandma plants the seeds of her stubborn Koeran plant down by the river.
For much of the film we watch Daniel act as a kind of force of nature, willing the farm into existence. He is sceptical of the local yokels who say he should trust to divination to find a source of water for irrigation: he sees himself as a man of science. But Daniel slowly learns to come to a kind of mutual dependence and respect with his fellow Arkansas farm-workers, as represented by a marvellous Will Patton (ARMAGEDDON) as Paul.
Ultimately this is a story of accommodation and reconciliation. The acts of racism are essentially ignorant rather than malicious. Paul thinks it's okay to introduce himself to Daniel by speaking about the Korean War without thinking how Daniel's family might have suffered during it. A little kid at Church asks David why his face is so flat before asking to play with him. In this depiction of casual but not necessarily malevolent racism - in the role of the grandmother as a link to the old country - at the mother's exasperation and nervousness - at the sheer joy to have some chilli! - this film resonated with me as a second generation Indian immigrant. It feels as if Lee Isaac Chung has captured something very special, authentic and rarely told that is of real value.
What is even more impressive is that he has achieved this is on such a small budget and quick shooting schedule and yet has managed to create such a beautiful evocative landscape. Credit is due to DP Lachlan Milne and especially composer Emile Mosseri (KAJILLIONAIRE).
My final comment is merely to note with sadness that this film has been placed in the ghetto of Foreign Language picture by the Academy, as if to say that multilingual tales of life of in America are somehow less valid or other. In fact, they are a vital and important part of any country's story and should be seen as part of the mainstream narrative.
MINARI has a rating of PG-13 and a running time of 113 minutes. The film played Sundance 2020. It is currently on release on streaming services.
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