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‘Minari’ offers a different take on the American Dream

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There are a lot of ways in which movies can surprise us. Sometimes it is subtle – a film is funnier or more dramatic than we expected. Sometimes, it’s a little more overt – a stunt cast cameo or a third act twist. But the vast majority of these surprises involve what a movie is.

But what about when the surprise springs from what a movie isn’t?

That’s what I got when I finally, after spending a full year hearing about its excellence from various trusted sources since its debut at Sundance in January of 2020, got to watch “Minari,” the brilliant film written and directed by Lee Isaac Cheung. Now, these sources who sung the film’s praises steered clear of spoilers – what I heard was that it was great, not why it was great.

We all have our biases, conscious and otherwise. And when I heard that “Minari” centered around a Korean family moving to Arkansas in the 1980s, I made some assumptions about what the film would be about, assumptions that involved othering born of the racist attitudes of that place and time.

Instead, what I got was a moving family drama, a film that explored the complexities that come with being bound by blood and how cultural expectations can challenge the choices people make. It is a film about love and obligation, of the responsibilities and burdens we bear toward those who matter most to us. It is about differences, yes, but also acceptance, all in service of trying to do right by the ones who mean the most to us.

We meet the Yi family as they’re arriving at their new home in Arkansas. Patriarch Jacob (Steven Yeun, TV’s “Wizards”) has moved his family here from California to pursue his dream of becoming a farmer. Specifically, he wants to grow Korean vegetables in an effort to both celebrate and profit from his heritage. He brings with him his wife Monica (Yeri Han, “Secret Zoo”) – who is less than enthused about the entire endeavor – and his two children, daughter Anne and son David (Noel Kate Cho and Alan Kim, respectively; both in their debuts). David has a heart murmur, a condition that leaves his mother frightened of what will happen if he has an episode so far from a hospital.

Jacob and Monica work as chicken sexers – the same job they held in California – to help keep the family afloat as they invest heavily in making the farm happen. Jacob hires on Paul (Will Patton, “Hammer”), a tongues-speaking and zealous Christian whose odd religious beliefs have no effect on his hard and honest work. The family slowly begins to integrate into town life, going to church and making friends.

When Monica’s mother Soonja (Yuh-jung Youn, “Beasts Clawing at Straws”) comes to live with them, the dynamics get complicated. Space is at a premium, so Soonja moves into David’s room. David struggles with how to relate to his grandmother, who is unlike any grandmother he’s ever experienced – she swears and gambles and watches pro wrestling on TV.

Even as his parents fret over his health, David finds himself spending more and more time with his grandmother, joining her as she makes her way to a creek bed on the property where she plants minari, a plant that plays a big part in Korean cuisine and culture.

Familial tension grows as Jacob struggles to get the farm up and running. Even with Paul’s help, it’s a tough task. A frustrating one as well – and those frustrations start to boil over, contributing to the already extant tensions between Jacob and Monica.

There are tragedies to be faced by the Yis, obstacles related to both the farm and the family that must be overcome. As the troubles mount, we’re left to wonder just how strong these family ties might be – and if they are strong enough to help the Yis weather the difficulties ahead.

I’ll be the first to admit that “Minari” wasn’t the movie that I expected it to be. While I anticipated a “fish out of water” vibe, I wasn’t at all ready for how that would be handled. The Yi family are outsiders, yes, strangers in a strange land, but instead of a film about how external forces conspired against their success, this is a movie about internal struggles. It’s a thoughtful, nuanced family drama that just happens to be about a Korean family in 1980s Arkansas. Their cultural and racial differences from the people around them aren’t ignored, but neither are they the thematic foundation of the film.

And I am so glad.

Not that a movie driven by those differences would have been bad – we’ve seen plenty of great work built around those very differences – but to get something like this, something sweet and sad and utterly universal in the relatability of its circumstances … it’s just better.

Cheung’s work – both on the script and behind the camera – is masterful. He has a wonderful eye, capturing the vibrant verdancy of the farm alongside the borderline poverty of the living situation. The narrative is compelling and the dialogue is captivating; it’s a fascinating story, one that unfolds with an earned leisure that allows small moments to loom large throughout.

The cast is outstanding. Steven Yeun’s Jacob radiates determination; even as he struggles, he continues to press onward without fail. Yeri Han’s is a quieter performance, but that quiet is reflective of a steeliness that comes through clearly. The two of them together – in good times, yes, but especially when the going gets rough – are a delight to watch. Yuh-jung Youn is fantastic as Grandma, bringing a wonderfully unselfconscious and chaotic energy to the proceedings. Noel Kate Cho’s is far from the flashiest role, but she acquits herself well, embodying frustrated older sisters everywhere. And young Alan Kim is a revelation, giving a charming and heartbreaking turn as a young boy who feels everything even as he doesn’t necessarily understand.

(Oh, and Will Patton is great. Weird and sometimes discomfiting, but great.)

“Minari” is a powerful look at the meaning of family, a thoughtful and heartfelt period piece that brings to light the many social, cultural and economic obstacles that rise up to interfere with the so-called American Dream. Packed with striking screen pictures and absolutely dynamite performances, it’s one hell of a movie … even if it wasn’t what I expected.

[5 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 01 March 2021 08:00

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