Movie review: Minari (Lee Isaac Chung)

Yuh-Jung Youn

MinariMinari is the first movie I’ve seen with another human being in over a year, in this case with my wife. It was a nice date night in front of the television.

It’s your basic American dream story, set in 1980s America. Except that the family is Korean and they have moved to rural Arkansas. More correctly, the father Jacob (Steven Yeun) really wants the dream. His wife Monica (Yeri Han) is not sold on the plan, especially when she first sees her new home. Yet she wants to support his plans to start a farm, selling vegetables. Part of the story arc is this tension.

And they’ve traveled all that way with their two kids, the daughter Anne (Noel Kate Cho), who is almost a second mother to her younger brother David (Alan S. Kim), who has a heart condition.

The most interesting relationship, though, is between David and his maternal grandmother Soonja (Yuh-Jung Youn). She was ostensibly brought in so that Anne wouldn’t be so lonely. But David finds her foul-mouthed ways unbecoming of a grandmother. She does know a lot about minari, a type of water celery, and how to grow it.

The audience summary for Minari in Rotten Tomatoes says to “prepare for an ambiguous ending.” I didn’t find it unclear at all. Perhaps the movie sagged just before that. I would agree that “this is a beautifully filmed blend of comedy and drama, brought to life by a wonderful cast playing well-written characters.”

Drawing on his childhood

Much of the credit for that goes to writer/director Lee Isaac Chung, who mined elements of his own growing up. I saw him in one recent interview, he was going to have to find a “real” job if this movie didn’t work out.

It has, of course, “worked out.” It’s been nominated for six Oscars, including Best Motion Picture of the Year. Steven Yeun is the first Asian-American and the first person of East Asian descent to be nominated as Best Actor. Chung was nominated for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay. Emile Mosseri is up for Best Original Score.

Unsurprisingly, Yuh-Jung Youn has been Oscar-nominated as Best Supporting Actress. She’s already won the Screen Actors Guild and BAFTA awards. The role is a hoot.

It is a small film, a quiet film. Not a lot happens, and most of what does is often supplied by Jacob’s most peculiar friend Paul (Will Patton). The movie uses subtitles, but so much of the dialogue is expressed in gestures and facial expressions that one almost doesn’t need them.

I liked Minari quite a bit. If I wasn’t wowed by it might be that I fell into that dreadful “buzz” effect. “This is Oscar-nominated?” In normal times, I might have seen it, and in a movie theater, before the awards season. Ah, well.