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Minari Review: Steven Yeun Stars In Quiet But Compelling Immigrant Tale

Korean-American Lee Isaac Chung’s semi-autobiographical film is about a Korean family’s search of the American dream in the 1980s.

Minari (PG)

Starring Steven Yeun, Yeri Han, Alan S. Kim

Directed by Lee Isaac Chung

For a film that has stirred up so much Oscar buzz, Minari is a surprisingly quiet domestic drama.

It’s in fact so low-key and largely quite uneventful that, except for a few narrative-shifting incidents, critics raving about this flick, particularly those in America, find it simply superb.

Because this story feels, well, just so real.

Minari, by the way, refers to a hardy Korean herbal weed planted here at a creek which grows resiliently anywhere. Thus, making it a perfect metaphor for this compelling immigrant tale.

Every significant thing that’s happening here is simmering right below the surface as the pressure to chase the American Dream on husband-father-wannabe farmer Jacob Yi’s very weary shoulders (a really good Steven Yuen transplanted from The Walking Dead to The Working Dead to speak primarily Korean) becomes too much to bear.

In Ronald Reagan's shining, entrepreneurial 1980s, Jacob is a first-generation arrival from South Korea who uproots his Christian family of skeptical wife and two young kids from the safe predictability of California to the unknown, iffy “hillbilly place” of Arkansas. He’s determined obsessively to become a farmer supplying Korean grocers in the big cities nearby with crops grown in his newly acquired giant field of dreams upon which he pins all his hopes and savings.

“Look at the dirt, look at the colour, this is the best dirt in America” he describes this Garden of Eden farmland to his missus, Monica (South Korean actress Han Ye-Ri from Champion).

“The Garden [of Eden] is small,” she counters as she hates being stranded in absolute alien territory in the middle of nowhere living in a makeshift home on wheels. The wife, struggling in unfamiliar seclusion, cannot accept winging their future on something that’s about as sure a thing as a child's wishful thinking.

Even worse, their small son, David (endearing Critics’ Choice Award winner Alan Kim), has a heart condition which may urgently require a hospital being not so far away.

“Remember what we said when we got married? That we’d go to America and save each other,” recalls Jacob to his unhappy, quietly boiling spouse as their life together buckles under the strain of external setbacks and internal conflicts that’s starting to tear them apart. Over here, just as crop buyers can cancel orders unexpectedly, harried couples can cancel their unity quite expectedly too.

Now, in our comfy cinema seats, we might ask the question whether all their woes are too self-inflicted, too overdone and quite avoidable. Especially on the part of Monica who could, frankly, be more supportive. But that’s a question which probably only an actual immigrant plonked into an actual strange and uncertain isolation can truly answer.

Jacob, splitting his labours between examining the butts of little chicks as a chicken sexer at a hatchery and toiling on his would-be farm with a God-fearing zealot ang moh worker, Paul (a wonderfully spot-on sanguine Will Patton), refuses arrogantly to believe in the homespun wisdom of his new country. “Never pay for anything you can find for free,” he teaches his son triumphantly when he decides to drill for water himself, forgoing the experience of a local water diviner who comes with a funny-looking detecting stick.

It’s an act of cocky foolishness that will cost the newcomer vital money later as his religious, tongues-spewing employee, Paul, drags a large cross along the road on pious Sundays to keep the proven traditions of the devoutly church-going place alive in a great vis-a-vis of foreign sacrilege versus local heritage.

“Do you want me to pray for you?” the older, unburdened man kneels down next to his younger, battered boss. “Why? No need,” goes the cynical Asian Christian worshipping a more practical God of profit.

There appears to be, quite inexplicably in our divisive times, zero racism in this movie. At most, any micro tension comes across more as harmless curiosity. “Why is your face so flat?” a white kid asks David innocently at church before the two of them becoming best sleepover pals.

All this fascinating East-West insight comes courtesy of Korean-American writer-director Lee Isaac Chung’s deceptively sparse but smartly studied script which is based loosely on his own unconventional childhood growing up on a small farm in the Ozark Mountains in Arkansas. Hence, lending a rarely seen authenticity into an oft-told tale. Caught up in controversy about whether his film is a Korean flick or an American one, he said simply that the language it speaks is a “language of the heart”.

Consider then this cultural context. There are noisy superhero flicks dominating the movie scene, big-star dramas, mindless comedies, age-of-Trump craziness, pandemic anxieties and anti-Asian attacks in America right now. And then there is this little gem of Minari.

Compared to last year's big Oscar winner, the intricately-plotted Parasite, this similarly Korean account, a humbly pastoral one contrasted with the former's modern, layered setting, couldn’t be more different. It is simple and straightforward with no frills or subliminal hidden meaning. It’s a realistic drama, propelled by an excellent cast, that is extraordinarily effective just for being so ordinary.

Minari, in a nutshell, exists because life itself exists.

Americans, you see, love an immigrant story that succeeds. But if they find one that doesn’t go so smoothly where everybody generally isn’t hunky dory most of the time, well, they can surely relate to it even more.

Meanwhile, we in Asia, used to a certain stylistic exuberance from a Korean-language flick — an element personified here by the insertion of the rascally funny, eccentric grandmother Soon-Ja (veteran South Korean actress Youn Yuh-Jung from The Housemaid) — probably expect more showiness, pizzazz and cleverly obtuse ironies out of this film.

Youn, I tell you, has to be a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination as a true scene stealer here. Grandma, flown in from the motherland, to share a room with David and look after the children, is a cheeky oddball who plants both the minari and much-needed humour into the show.

While Jacob wrestles with his own personal Great Depression, Soon-Ja makes her own Great Impression as she laps up the American wrestling matches she loves watching on TV and teaches David to beat “the bastards” at card games. “You’re not a real grandma,” the befuddled boy tells his bewitching granny while she knows, from her ancient homeland instincts, that the kid with his weak heart is much stronger than his over-cautious American-ised parents think.

She's the de rigeur peculiar intruder whom director Chung injects into his plot who seems so at home as the sagacious elder everybody expects in an Asian tale but yet, is also out of place and unlikely at the same time for being drawn so unevenly flashy as a character that pops up only in the movies.

I think she’s a charming, adorable hoot. But I can’t figure out though how she, sans a lick of passable English with not even a guidebook about local customs in sight, fits in so effortlessly into “hillbilly” country. Plus her involvement in the film’s rather convenient big-drama conclusion kinda makes things look just too pat and contrived.

But probe deeper, think harder and consider further about Minari, and you’ll find a quality that’s full of life-affirming home truths, tough hard truths and top-notch performances which just make everything here such terrifically rewarding cinema.

Fittingly, Grandma has the last best line. “Things that hide are more dangerous and scary,” she instructs her grandson about snakes in the woods which he can see and should simply avoid.

It is truly wise old counsel which this unavoidably splendid Minari, with its heart on its sleeve and absolutely nothing to hide with everything to enrapture, follows astutely to the letter. (****)

Photo: TPG News/Click Photos

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