Movie Review: Minari

Filmmakers love telling immigrant stories, from Wayne Wang’s THE JOY LUCK CLUB (adapted from Amy Tan’s novel of the same name) to Don Bluth’s AN AMERICAN TAIL (written by David Kirschner et al) to Paul King’s PADDINGTON (based on Michael Bond’s beloved books). These are all great tales about Chinese, Russian-Jewish mice and a Peruvian bear but what about Koreans, you ask? Where’s their immigrant experience story? It’s to be found in the new film, MINARI.

Based on writer-director Lee Isaac Chung’s (ABIGAIL HARM) own experiences growing up in rural Arkansas, MINARI tells the story of Korean immigrants Jacob (Steven Yeun, OKJA; TV’s THE WALKING DEAD) and Monica Yi (Han Ye-ri/한예리, SECRET ZOO/해치지않아), who relocate from California to the Wonder State in the 1980s along with their two American-born children, David (Alan S. Kim) and Anne (Noel Cho), where Jacob plans to farm a piece of land that no one else seems to want. Not surprisingly, the move and the challenge of farming in the middle of nowhere tests the couple’s relationship, and 6-year-old David’s medical condition only makes the situation harder. The arrival of Monica’s mother, Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung/윤여정), brings some happiness to the family but it is short-lived.

MINARI is a gently-told story that subtly ropes the audience into the lives, worries and aspirations of the Yi family as they try to manage the daily trials and tribulations of country life when they barely have two nickels to rub together. Lee shows us that while the immigrant experience may be similar across ethnicities, it can be different even within one family. Though Monica would prefer to return to the life that she has come to know and understand in California, Jacob is wholly committed to finding his American dream in rows of vegetables in Arkansas. He’s going to make it work no matter what it takes. The children, meanwhile, seem to take the move in stride because all they really want is that their parents are happy. Interestingly, it’s Soon-ja who deals with the challenges of living in a new country and a new culture the best. She brings some minari (Chinese celery) seeds with her from home, which she plants along the bank of a nearby creek. Yes, the metaphor may be a bit obvious but as both an immigrant and the grandson of immigrants myself, I can say that grandma’s approach is correct.

The performances here are all heartfelt, perhaps because Yeun himself is an immigrant. He moved with his family from Seoul, Korea to Regina, Saskatchewan when he was four. It’s Korean screen legend Youn who steals the film, though, with her performance as the salty Soon-ja. MINARI marks the American feature film debut for the actress who has been appearing in films in her native South Korea for 50 years.

MINARI premiered in January 2020 at Sundance where it took home both the U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize and the U.S. Dramatic Audience Award. The Hollywood Foreign Press Association (the people who vote for the Golden Globes) caused a kerfuffle a few months back when it announced that the film would compete in the Best Foreign Language Film category rather than in the more prestigious Best Motion Picture – Drama category. Many in the industry argued that MINARI is still an American story regardless of what language is spoken. The film did get a Golden Globe nomination but is it more deserving than other foreign language film award hopefuls? It will be interesting to see how the AMPAS Board of Directors (the group behind the Academy Awards) classifies the film. I have a feeling it will get a Best Picture nomination because they will want to show the world how they’re now embracing diversity. We’ll know next week when the Oscar nominations are announced.

MINARI will no doubt come to our cinemas in Hong Kong sometime in the next few months. If you subscribe to a streaming service though, it’ll be available on demand starting tomorrow (February 26th). The word is that Amazon Prime Video, iTunes and Google Play Movies will carry it but I can’t confirm any of them at this time. It’s definitely worth checking out!

Watch the review recorded on Facebook Live on Friday, February 26th, 8:30 am HK time!

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