The “minari” in the title refers to a type of vegetable also known as Korean watercress or water celery, which is typically grown in damp areas. Or in the case of this acclaimed drama based on writer-director Lee Isaac Chung’s personal experience growing up on a farm in Arkansas, one of the characters (Youn Yuh-Jung’s Soon-ja) plants the minari seeds by the creek.
The title also serves as a metaphor for the Yi family led by Jacob (Steven Yeun of TV’s The Walking Dead and last seen in Lee Chang-Dong’s Burning), where he and his family — wife Monica (Han Ye-Ri) and their two children (Alan Kim’s David, Noel Kate Cho’s Anne) — trying to adapt to the new surrounding while overcoming the daily challenges they forced to endure.
It was Jacob’s decision to move from California to rural Arkansas after spending their mundane life working as chicken sexers. He has acquired a large piece of land and hopes to become a successful farmer by growing Korean fruits and vegetables. But his wife has a tough time convinced that such a drastic move would help their family’s financial struggles in the long run.
As Jacob eventually start farming with the help of an eccentric god-fearing local (Will Patton’s Paul), Monica’s elderly mother Soon-ja subsequently arrives to help look after their kids. Soon-ja’s bonding moments with her grandchildren, notably David is undoubtedly the film’s most memorable scenes. Youn Yuh-Jung’s unconventional role of a grandma is a scene-stealer here. She swears, loves gambling, doesn’t even bake cookies and at one point, David complains that she “smells like Korea”. Her appearance also helps brighten up the film with some genuinely hilarious moments such as how Soon-ja casually teases David after he wets his bed.
While Minari gets a little too tidy the way Lee Isaac Chung chose to tell the struggles of Korean immigrants’ experience chasing the American Dream, with some of the scenes tend to slip into the typical melodrama territory, he does a good job in bringing out the best in his ensemble cast. Both Steven Yeun and Han Ye-Ri deliver engaging performances in their respective roles as Jacob and Monica, with the latter’s otherwise obligatory worried-wife portrayal is thankfully better than expected. Alan Kim and Noel Kate Cho show a considerable acting range, despite the two of them are newcomers appearing for the first time in a feature-length film. Finally, Will Patton made quite an impression in his oddball supporting turn as a worker helping out Jacob’s farm.
Chung’s deliberate and unhurried approach complements well with the film’s overall gentle tone that reflects the rural setting of Arkansas. The film is also well-shot with the help of Lachlan Milne’s beautiful cinematography. And although Minari is technically a Hollywood production, Chung made the smart move not to have the ensemble cast of the Yi family purposefully speaks English for the sake of reaching out to the wider audiences. Instead, the film is largely in Korean (with English subtitles, of course) and deservedly so, which gives a sense of authenticity to Chung’s autobiographical storyline.
Total Oscar nominations: 6 (Best Picture, Best Director – Lee Isaac Chung, Best Actor – Steven Yeun, Best Supporting Actress – Youn Yuh-Jung, Best Original Screenplay – Lee Isaac Chung and Best Original Score – Emile Mosseri)