I reviewed MINARI for Cine-file Chicago. This would have made the list of my ten favorite films of 2020 had I seen it before last year ended.
Lee Isaac Chung’s MINARI (US)
Available to rent through the Gene Siskel Film Center here
The title of Lee Isaac Chung’s wonderful semi-autobiographical film refers to an edible, parsley-like plant cultivated throughout Asia. It only makes a brief onscreen appearance in this early-1980s-set family drama–when an elderly Korean woman (the legendary Youn Yuh-jung) plants it on the banks of a creek in rural Arkansas after immigrating to America to live with her daughter–but, on a metaphorical level, the title has a powerful resonance: This is a uniquely American movie about the Korean diaspora and what traditions do and do not take root when its members attempt to transplant their culture into new and unfamiliar terrain. The Korean-American family at the center of MINARI, the Yis, have recently moved from California to a farm in the Ozarks when the film begins. The parents, Jacob (Steven Yeun) and Monica (Han Ye-ri), get menial jobs at a chicken hatchery where they are tasked with determining the sex of baby chicks while Jacob simultaneously attempts to make a more substantial living as a farmer on their newly purchased plot of land. Monica is less than thrilled by their modest new trailer home and is worried about the heart condition of David, their seven-year-old son. There is a palpable sense that most of this narrative is being filtered through the consciousness (even if not always seen through the eyes) of David and his older sister Anne; as in Terrence Malick’s DAYS OF HEAVEN, the problems of the adult world that drive the movie are not fully grasped by the child protagonists who frequently bear witness to them. Yeun, so effective as the creepy, moneyed sociopath in Lee Chang-dong’s BURNING, shows off an entirely different set of colors on his acting palette in the creation of Jacob, a down-to-earth working man whose admirable ambition and problematic stubbornness seem inextricably intertwined. Han likewise imbues the not-so-quietly suffering Monica, a woman visibly struggling against the confines of her narrowly defined social role, with a novelistic complexity. The scenes of conflict between the two of them, often patiently captured by Chung in widescreen master-shots, blow something like Noah Baumbach’s contrived MARRIAGE STORY out of the water. Equally good are the more humorous scenes of the Yis attempting to assimilate into the broader community. Their interactions with members of the local church, and Paul (Will Patton), a religious zealot who works for Jacob, are wryly funny precisely because they’re devoid of the stereotypes that usually plague American films set in “the deep South” (undoubtedly because the script was based in part on Chung’s own childhood memories of growing up in Arkansas). The Reagan-era period details, from Jacob’s slightly ill-fitting red trucker’s cap to the fake wood-paneling in the interior of his trailer home, likewise impress for their subtle but potent authenticity. (2020, 115 min) [Michael Glover Smith]