With its pastoral imagery, beautifully nuanced performances and specific emotional details about the Korean immigrant experience in rural America, Lee Isaac Chung’s semi-autobiographical Minari depicts one family coming to terms with compounded culture shock as it attempts to build a life in western Arkansas.
Jacob and Monica Yi (Steven Yeun and Yeri Han) are a few years into their American experiment, having spent time working on California chicken farms. In search of opportunity outside of factory farms, they take their young children Anne and David (Noel Cho and Alan Kim) to a sun-soaked meadow in the middle of nowhere.
Both Monica and Jacob go to work “sexing” baby chickens — separating the genders — but Jacob’s heart is not in such tedious work. He wants to grow crops in the dry dirt of his property, and his efforts to find a reliable water source are coming up short. In the way he carries himself with a western amble yet wants to farm the “Korean way,” Jacob is between two worlds, trying to tell how much he wants to keep from each culture. Monica is far less sure of this entire venture and acts as though this new life in America is not going to plan.
Shot near Tulsa and featuring performances by strong Oklahoma actors like Ben Hall, Darryl Cox and Eric Starkey, Minari exhibits all the visual and tonal earmarks of an early Terrence Malick film, with Chung soaking in the rural sunlight that illuminates everything while drying the land. As Malick did in early films like Badlands, Chung proves adept at balancing the family’s struggle with both humor and humanity.
Much of that humor comes from Grandmother Soonja (Yuh-jung Youn), who arrives at the family’s mobile home to help with the children. She comes directly from Korea, and Anne and David are never sure what to think of this boisterously profane old lady who brings unusual foods and smells into the household, but also a chaotic combination of strength and burdens. If Soonja represents the tug of the familiar, the family’s new environment and newfound relationships are exerting just as much pull, perhaps more.
There are plenty of reasons why the Yis might not make it, including a medical condition that could draw them into a semi-forced life in the city, but then they have more support from their new neighbors than they could have imagined at first. This is especially true of Paul, played by veteran character actor Will Patton. Paul, a Pentecostal prone to speaking in tongues as part of his conversations with God, insinuates himself into the Yis’ life as a farmworker and becomes something of a caretaker for the family.
Ultimately, Minari works because the actors are beautifully on point, especially Yeun and Hari. While Yeun is likely to be the most familiar face on screen after spending years on AMC’s The Walking Dead as Glenn, one of the most beloved characters in the series, both actors succeed in maintaining tension throughout the story. There’s no question of the couple’s love, but the family’s situation is fragile, and it comes through in the actors’ palpable depiction of ever-present stress.
Minari is a fine example of a small-budget Oklahoma production ticking all the artistic boxes, and the critical raves will hopefully attract more productions of its type. Chung, who grew up under similar circumstances as young David in the film, has yet to land on a specific style and is currently remaking the 2016 anime film Your Name, but Minari is a true breakout film for this gifted director, and Oklahoma’s supporting role in this quiet wonder hopefully bodes well for films of equal artistry.
Minari is currently showing at Tower Theatre, Rodeo Cinema, and Oklahoma City Museum of Art, with virtual screenings available through Tower and OKCMOA. For more information, go to tickets.minari.movie.
Next week: For next Friday’s Film and Music column, I will be introducing a weekly five-point list of recommendations for your weekend entertainment, showcasing live shows, album debuts, and films worth seeing on opening night.
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