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Review: Minari

Lawrence Mason reviews the lates A24 drama, a Korean-American tale of fragile hopes.

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Image Credit: A24

Director: Lee Isaac Chung
Starring: Steven Yeun, Han Ye-ri, Youn Yuh-jung
Running Time: 1hr 55m
Rating: PG-13

Named after a resilient Korean herb that will grow no matter what ground it’s planted on, Minari follows a Korean family assimilating into their new home – rural Arkansas. Partly based off his own life, writer and director Lee Isaac Chung first and foremost tells the story of a family— a work obsessed father who will stop at nothing to reach his dream of owning his own farm, a grandma reconnecting with her family and forming a jovial connection with her grandson, and a mother trying to juggle a sick son and a stubborn husband while being uprooted from her comfortable, albeit monotonous, life in California. Through the camera’s raw yet tender gaze, the story of the Yi family is presented as a tapestry – with its focus weaving between the different dynamics and dramas that are natural to family life. The same importance is given to the family’s fortune – in Jacob’s (Steven Yeun) plight to get the farm profitable - as it is to the grandma's arrival, and in doing so the film paints a rich, vibrant picture with a strong, yet complex, emotional core.

Jacob and his wife Monica came to the US in the early 70s and managed to stay afloat as chicken sexers in California, which Jacob carries out with an effortless efficiency. After nearly a decade of scraping by, Jacob buys a plot of land and a trailer in rural Arkansas. The film starts as they begin their new life, with Jacob arriving in the truck, full of tools and other farming cargo, while Monica drives the kids in a separate car: the level-headed pre-teen Anne, and her younger more mischievous brother, seven-year-old David, the symbolism in this dual arrival ringing true throughout the film. After some initial struggles, Monica enlists her mother to stay with them, to help around the house and keep an eye on David, who has a hole in his heart. Much like the eponymous herb, Jacob is determined to grow the farm and perhaps downplays any problems, while Monica seems to only see such problems.

The plot initially centres around Jacob’s pursuit of his dream, in numerous scenes of him going to the bank, making his own well and buying a tractor – accompanied by his son throughout. Such scenes are stringed together in a matter-of-fact way, given little context and are simply presented to us in a meandering manner à la Lady Bird. In doing so, we are transported into David’s shoes by simply tagging along while dad gets his business in order. With this perspective comes the innocence of youth, alongside the discomfort associated with hearing your parents argue – the reserved nature of both Jacob and Monica rarely allows their discourse to devolve into a screaming match, instead issues simmer below the surface and erupt not in an explosion, but in painfully-felt discussions, with Jacob trying his hardest to avoid eye contact while Monica struggles to hold back the tears.

Monica is without any friends, an outsider in her new home. While Minari could have simply tackled themes of racism, Chung instead focuses on the nuances of this multifaceted household. In doing so, he deconstructs the topic of family by looking at it from a smorgasbord of different views. It captures a very specific experience: a Korean family in rural, middle of nowhere, hillbilly Arkansas (however you need not worry about any of the expected racist locals.) But despite this particular subject, it tells the story of every family. The many dimensions offer numerous ‘jumping on’ points – feelings or experiences that we can relate to, allowing us to latch onto the Yi family as if it’s our own. In an uncharacteristically explosive finale, the family is put to the test; however, our resolution is not expressed in words, but in more of a ‘knowing look.’

The film has a simple story, yet Chung and Co. pack it with so much emotion. It captures the hate that comes with familial love, the desperation and determination associated with working toward your dream and a child-like innocence, confusion and adoration. It’s the story of a family assimilating into a new home, but more importantly it’s the story of a family, and everything associated with that.

Editor's Note: Minari will be released on February 12

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