Minari movie cast: Steven Yeun, Yeri Han, Alan Kim, Noel Cho, Yuh-jung Youn
Minari movie director: Lee Isaac Chung
Minari movie rating: 4 stars
Families are unpredictable things, bound by invisible bonds, divided by immeasurable rifts. The worst of them can’t find a way to each other despite a lifetime under the same roof. The best of them may drift, stay apart for years only to fit effortlessly together when they meet. The bonds can leap over years, generations, continents and cultures.
Minari is the story of one such family, of Korean descent, who has come to the US sometime in the 1970-80s chasing the American dream. The husband and wife (Jacob played by Yeun, Monica by Han) find they can’t agree on the contours of this dream, the way to it, and what to sacrifice and what to bear along. Their children (the daughter, Anne, played by Cho, and the son, David, by Kim) — who are more comfortable speaking English and yet quite warm in their Korean skin — are torn between the two.
A reminder of what really matters comes from across the seas, by way of Monica’s mother Soonja (Youn). A widow of the war, the only parent to an only child, she is long past the age of ‘adjustments’. Soonja can’t cook, though she carries across the seas what her daughter misses the most in America (red chillies and anchovies), she swears, she loves playing cards and watching bruising boxing matches, and she advises: “Getting hurt is part of growing up”. David declares all this means she is “not a real grandma”, ones like his friends have.
Between the grandmother and David, 7, sprouts a relationship that is the beating heart of Minari. In ways that only grandparents and grandchildren come together, they see in each other the things the parents have long stopped seeing. Anne is disappointingly only a backdrop in this autobiographical tale by writer-director Chung, though David and his grandmother have enough love to accommodate everyone around them.
The film is set in vast, lonesome Arkansas, where Jacob has bought a farm that is haunted as per local lore by what happened to the old owner (not spelled out). Barely eking out a living in California as a worker who separates chicks as per gender, cooped in a small house, Jacob clearly sees in the Arkansas farm a chance to reclaim the life he left behind — closer to the earth, under open skies, growing Korean vegetables. It makes economic sense too, given the growing number of Korean immigrants.
Monica is dismayed at what that implies for their children, especially David who has a heart condition. Their house is just a long trailer, there is no community around, and Jacob only grudgingly agrees to go to church — though they find neighbours who are wholesomely welcoming there.
If Minari has a fault, it is that it is almost too fairytale-like, in its settings, in its characters that include a friendly neighbourhood workman whom Jacob hires, in its faint hints at Oriental exoticism compared to the other side, and in the ease with which the Yi family gets over what God and other beings throw in its way.
However, its perspective of an Asian family finding its roots in rural America instead of the usual city settings, its piquant observation on the ways of the West and children (“who cares what a small boy wears”), its uniquely rural and hence universal problems, and its insights into how families work on a day-to-day, routine basis — portrayed by a stellar cast — make Minari an experience difficult to forget.