“Minari”, whose title means water dropwort in Korean, is a simple but profoundly intimate piece of work to remember. While it is quite specific in terms of background and characters, it also works as a universal American immigrant family drama full of sensitivity and humanity, and you will admire how elegantly and effortlessly many genuine emotional moments in this exceptional movie are delivered one by one along its unadorned but undeniably powerful narrative.
In the beginning, the movie, which is mainly set in Arkansas, US during the 1980s, slowly and succinctly establishes a big change in the life of a South Korean immigrant couple and their two children. Tired of many years of sexing chickens at hatcheries, Jacob Yi (Steven Yeun) decided to move from California to some rural region in Arkansas, but his wife Monica (Han Ye-ri) and their children, David (Alan Kim) and Anne (Noel Kate Cho), are not particularly excited about this decision. When they arrive at a remote spot where Jacob will start a farm for Korean vegetables, Jacob is very hopeful about their rural life ahead, but his wife has some doubt and reservation on his plan, and the growing tension between them often leads to angry arguments while their children hear every word from them.
Anyway, Jacob tries to make the first steps in his farm business during next several days, and it looks like he will succeed in the end as long as he keeps trying hard. In addition, he is unexpectedly visited by some old dude who turns out to have been to South Korea once, and this rather eccentric old dude comes to give an extra help to Jacob as his sole employee.
Because Jacob and Monica still have to work at a local hatchery for making ends meet, they need someone who can babysit David and Anne during their absence, so Monica’s mother Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung) comes from South Korea. While Monica is glad to have someone to lean on as her husband is mostly occupied with his farm works, David cannot not accept his grandmother that well just because she feels like a total stranger to him from the beginning, and he is certainly not that pleased when he has to sleep with his grandmother in his bedroom at night.
However, it does not take much time for David to develop a bond between him and Soon-ja, who is an unconventionally colorful and plucky woman in addition to being your average no-nonsense Korean grandmother. She likes to drink the soft drink of a certain brand which she calls “water from the mountains” (Guess what that is, folks), she enjoys watching pro-wrestling matches on TV, and she also gladly teaches David a traditional card game, which I have not still mastered yet for being a lousy and disinterested card player.
As Jacob and his family get more accustomed to the new environment surrounding them, the movie occasionally provides several amusing moments of cultural difference. While local people are mostly friendly to their new neighbors, Jacob and his family cannot help but feel awkward as outsiders when they attend a church service along with a bunch of local people, and there is a little funny moment when Anne encounters a young local girl who has no idea on Anne’s cultural background from the start.
Meanwhile, things get worse in the farm to Jacob’s frustration. While days of dry weather are continued, his main source of water happens to be dried out, he has no choice but to pay for more water for his crops, and that subsequently puts more pressure on not only him but also his family. Monica begins to run out of her patience more than ever, and, not so surprisingly, there later comes a quiet but devastating scene where she bitterly expresses her longtime frustration with a man she has tried to love and trust during all those years since they married in South Korea.
While the mood becomes melodramatic from time to time, the screenplay by director/writer Lee Isaac Chung still calmly glides from one moment to another, and I admire how he and his crew members including cinematographer Lachlan Milne and editor Harry Yoon carefully and thoughtfully build up the main characters and their domestic environment via small and big details to be appreciated – especially by the audiences of South Korean heritage. When I watched the movie along with my parents, my mother was delighted to notice a number of familiar stuffs including a certain blue plastic dipper, and we all became a bit nostalgic when one old but recognizable South Korean song appears at one point.
Furthermore, Chung also draws fabulous performances from his main cast members, who all are quite believable as human characters to empathize with. While Steven Yeun and Han Ye-ri flawlessly embody the long relationship history between their characters, Alan Kim and Noel Kate Cho are also effective in their respective roles, and Youn Yuh-jung, who has been a living legend in South Korean cinema for many years in addition to being one of the coolest South Korean actresses of our time, is undeniably unforgettable in her unpretentious mix of humor and poignancy. If Yeun and Han are the soul of the film, Youn and Kim are the heart of the film, and Youn is especially moving during a dramatic wordless moment around the end of the movie.
On the whole, “Minari”, which won both the US Dramatic Grand Jury Prize and the US Dramatic Audience Award when it was shown at the Sundance Film Festival early in last year, is a wonderful piece of work to be cherished, and it is really exciting for me to see Chung finally getting more attention than before. When I watched his first feature film “Munyurangabo” (2007) for the first time in 2009, I sensed a talented new filmmaker to watch, but his next two feature films “Lucky Life” (2010) and “Abigail Harm” (2012) unfortunately did not get much attention, and he was under the radar for a while before he started to work on the screenplay of “Minari” in 2018.
By the way, I still fondly remember when I had a little conversation with him around the time when “Munyurangabo” was shown at the 2010 Ebertfest. Because both of us incidentally studied biology at first and then became quite passionate about movies in each own way, he jokingly said that we disappointed our respective parents a lot just because of movies. Now I can assure him that he has made something which will surely make his parents very proud, and I hope that the current critical success of the movie will lead to more good and interesting movies from him during next several years.