Minari

Minari ★★★★

Minari is the Korean word for a type of herb that grows in the wild and that can be cultivated for eating and many other uses. Interestingly, it grows easily which makes it a sort of class equalizer--no matter how rich or poor one is they can enjoy the harvest of minari. This plant takes on a more symbolic meaning in the film as it is transported from Korea and planted in America just like the family portrayed in the narrative.

The film takes place in the '80s and follows the Yi family who have moved from California to rural Arkansas in order to try out farm life. The patriarch Jacob (Steven Yeun) thinks that he by growing Korean produce he can corner the market for Korean immigrants who miss food from back home. His wife Monica (Han Ye-ri) has much more trepidation about the plan and this leads to much fighting between the couple. Their two young children David (Alan Kim) and Anne (Noel Kate Cho) try to fit in and adjust to the culture shock. Their lifestyle gets shaken up when Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-Jung), Monica's elderly mother comes from Korea to come live with them.

This is a delicate and deliberately directed film where the emphasis is on the small human moments that make up our lives. There is a bit of fish-out-of water feeling but for much of the runtime the narrative is focused on farm life and not so much on how the family interacts with the local community. The main antagonist of Minari is nature and to a lesser extent time passing, and it is compelling to watch Jacob try to maintain his farm even through monetary and environmental setbacks. There is also a thread of religion and spirituality running underneath everything as Arkansas is smack dab in the Bible belt. It adds some interesting tension between Jacob and his wife as he is a nonbeliever and she is quite religious.

Where the film finds its footing is in Yuh-Jung's fantastic performance as Soon-Ja. She injects so much warmth and humor into Minari and it's delightful to see her personality shining through. On the surface it's about a man trying to make his dreams come true and support his family at the same time but it's also about keeping one's culture alive even if forced to live in a different country. The young boy David (who also has a heart condition that makes him frail) doesn't get along with the grandmother at first, constantly playing tricks on her and telling her she "isn't a real grandmother" but their relationship deepens over the course of the film into something truly special.

Since this takes place on farmland in Arkansas there is a lot of beautiful wide shots of green landscapes and vegetation. The family scenes are lit very warmly and evoke a nostalgic and comforting atmosphere. The musical score by Emile Mosseri is quite sweeping and compliments the cinematography perfectly. Minari might feel slow to some viewers as the pacing is even for throughout most of the runtime but the last third of the film will tug on anyone's heartstrings. This is the story of a family who grows together despite the odds, not unlike the minari Soon-Ja plants along the river shore.