Lee Isaac Chung
Release Year:
Length (mins):
Lee Isaac Chung
Steven Yeun, Yeri Han, Alan S. Kim
Academy Award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role
Screening Date:
  • 1 Mar 2022
  • Categories:

    A Korean-American family relocate from California to rural Arkansas in the 1980s. This quiet family drama charts their struggles to capture the elusive American Dream.

    Film Notes

    Minari review – a Korean family sows seeds of hope in Arkansas.

    Infused with a wonderful sentimentality, Lee Isaac Chung’s fictionalised account of his rural US childhood explores the growing pains of a family farm.

    Minari is an east Asian herb, sometimes called water dropwort or water celery, grown in the wild and treasured by connoisseurs, a little like samphire grass in England. Its appearance in this movie is a sign of something mysterious and providential, an indication of good things coming from the soil.

    This is a wonderfully absorbing and moving family drama with a buttery, sunlit streak of sentimentality. Writer-director Lee Isaac Chung based it on his childhood growing up on a farm in Arkansas in the 1980s. Minari already has the look of a well-loved classic, whose every scene feels familiar and loved, and it has an amazing way of recreating childhood. Watching it, I remembered for the first time in decades what it was like as a kid to sit in the back of a hot, stationary car in those days before air-conditioning, waiting for your mum and dad with the sun beating down, maybe a wisp of wind through the open window, and the hot plastic seats sticking to your bare legs.

    Steven Yeun gives a piercingly intelligent performance as Jacob, a Korean incomer to the United States in the Reagan era; he and his wife, Monica (Han Ye-ri), and their two kids, elder daughter Anne (Noel Cho) and little son David (Alan Kim), have arrived in Arkansas from California, where Jacob had been making a joyless but reliable factory wage in chicken hatcheries. Jacob has a big dream: he will farm the land here, and get rich growing real Korean vegetables for the many Korean immigrants in the US yearning for a taste of home. But Monica is already disappointed with this new, hard life he has given them. Han plays her brilliantly, as proud and self-contained as an exiled princess.

    She has persuaded Jacob to let her mother come from Korea to live with them, ostensibly to help look after the children but also because Monica needs a real adult friend. Youn Yuh-jung is marvellous as the cantankerous and outspoken “grandma” who has brought over creature comforts, including minari seeds, and Monica’s emotion on seeing her mum for the first time in years is almost unbearable. Jacob gets on with the hard business of sowing and reaping, with the help of a devout Christian who has learning challenges called Paul (Will Patton), and has to ignore the faultlines in their marriage and worries about young David’s health. Inevitably, Jacob’s crops begin to fail, and we see him as his children see him: working backbreakingly hard and suppressing his panic about money.

    Poor, tense Jacob achieves something like the status of Pa in Little House on the Prairie or Gérard Depardieu’s Jean de Florette, longing for the rain that will save his crops. It is agonising to watch him almost crippled with work and then arguing with Monica, and heart-rending to watch the kids rush to their rooms to write out “Don’t Fight” on paper planes and desperately throw them into the room where their parents are screaming at each other.

    Rightly or wrongly, this also is the sort of movie where you spend some time waiting for the first racist remark. When will it come? At the bank, with the white manager? In church, with the white minister? At the hospital, with the white doctor? But it never happens like that, or at least only in a single nasty remark from a white child to David at a church social. (The importance of Christianity in Korean life is another underdiscussed movie theme aired here.) Even then, the kid and David immediately become friends. This is not a film about racial tensions: it is as if this family is so isolated that the whole question is irrelevant. All that’s important is the family, and its titanic struggles with the weather, with fate and each other. It is a film in which the details, the child’s-eye-view episodes, the calamities, the tenderly remembered touches, all sing together like a choir.

    Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian, 1st April 2021

    Minari Is a Beautiful Portrait of a Family in Flux.

    Lee Isaac Chung’s bittersweet award-winning film is one of the highlights of the season. 

    Writer-director Lee Isaac Chung’s film Minari (VOD, February 26) opens with a small person rushing toward a vastness. Six-year-old David (Alan S. Kim) is in a car, gazing out at uncertain terrain. Emile Mosseri’s lovely score—a woozy chorus, sounding like a lullaby—seems to be gently ushering David and his family, rumbling along in their old station wagon, toward something difficult, but promising. 

    Indeed, the Yi family—Korean immigrant parents Jacob (Steven Yeun) and Monica (Yeri Han) and their children, David and Anne (Noel Kate Cho)—have traveled to a not terribly hospitable place in search of a better life. They’re in early 1980s Arkansas, a far cry from David and Anne’s native California, let alone Korea. Perhaps only Jacob, stern and ambitious, is one with big hopes: he dreams of starting a farm that will sustain his family on their own terms. Or on his terms, anyway. The rest of the family is either warily supportive, like Monica, or just along for the ride, as children usually are. 

    Chung’s film is autobiographical, which likely explains Minari’s loving, deeply empathetic tone, a warmth that imbues the film. These are real memories being cherished and offered up as Chung works to explain his own youth, but also tries to reckon with some version of his parents. As it unspools, Minari becomes a study in sober compassion. Chung has worked through the conflicts of his upbringing—his father’s stubbornness, the family’s rural isolation—and arrived at the grace of understanding, and all the forgiveness, regret, and affection that comes with that. 

    Minari could easily have been overly sentimental or conclusive, as so many other family dramas are, with a lesson learned and a bond forever strengthened. Chung, though, is resistant to such cliché. As the Yis settle into their trailer home on a large plot of only semi-arable land (access to irrigation water is the main issue thwarting Jacob’s plans), there are the expected fish-out-of-water moments. But contained within the Yi family are different fish from different waters; the children, in particular, chafe against not only their new surroundings, but also the ministrations of their grandmother, Soon-ja (Yuh-Jung Youn), who comes to live with the family, bringing with her the mores, smells, and flavors of the old country.

    This is the multivarious reality of immigration: a process of many generational assimilations and rejections, rather than a single narrative of change, from one place and culture to another. While the family’s struggles occupy the foreground of the film, behind that are themes of identity, the tear between tradition and need, consistency and change. Caught in that flux are David and Anne, first-generation kids trying to get a wide-eyed picture of their home while forever cognizant of another land, one that seems to hold all the demands and expectations of their family’s history. 

    The film’s title refers to an herb common in Asia, carried to America by Soon-ja and planted on the banks of an Arkansas creek so it can thrive in the family’s new country. It may be an obvious metaphor, but it’s nonetheless richly effective. There’s a wonderful simplicity to Minari’s lilting poetry. It’s straightforward and accessible, yet still somehow profound. Chung is careful to subtly shade his film; we meet no outright villains, suffer no true melodrama, are spared corny adages doled out by wacky grandma.

    As that fiery old lady, Youn has boundless oddball charm, shuffling around the family’s drab house and filling it with scratchy life. Soon-ja and David form a special bond, prickly and conspiratorial and funny. Those crucial strains of humor offset the pains of Jacob’s hardheadedness and Monica’s draining faith. Yeun and Han persuasively illustrate that strife, all the stresses bearing down upon these young parents as they come to the worried realization that shared experience may not be enough to hold them together. 

    Much of the movie plays as a collage of Chung’s memories, of incidents small and pleasurable, and those more grandly tragic. Oftentimes, that kind of patchwork memoir filmmaking undermines a narrative throughline, playing more as a collection of events than as a propulsive story—we tend not to remember linearly. Chung builds his way to a real climax, though, staging a moment of ragged family unity that gives way to a coda as touching as anything we’re likely to see this year. 

     RICHARD LAWSON, Vanity Fair,  

    What you thought about Minari

    Film Responses

    Excellent Good Average Poor Very Poor
    16 (57%) 10 (36%) 2 (7%) 0 (0%) 0 (0%)
    Total Number of Responses: 28
    Film Score (0-5): 4.50

    Collated Response Comments

    80 members and guests came to see Minari. The film has scored 4.5 from 28 responses, a 35% response rate.

    Your collected comments are below.

    "I am slightly baffled as to why this film is as garlanded as it apparently is. In a film of the forties or fifties these sodbusters would have been Swedish, Irish, German or Scots and would have faced a slightly different set of challenges but the themes would have been similar. What perhaps distinguishes the film and gives it a gritty veracity is the unpredictable lurching of fortune and uncomfortably varying strain of family and societal tensions. It is ravishingly beautifully shot but I find the ending oddly abrupt and the final upnote not entirely convincing".

    “The first time I watched this film I was left with an overwhelming sense of sadness. So much effort had been expended and so much emotional capital used up, all for almost no reward.

    On seeing it again on Tuesday, I found that there were many more light parts between the dark stretches than I saw before. The humour between grandma and grandson, between Jacob and Paul, the continual concern of the granddaughter for everyone else's welfare and the refusal to submit to defeat by Jacob. I also seemed to hear much more of the beautiful musical score the second time. The acting was superb and despite its almost 2 hour length, there was no wasted time in the film. Every frame carried a purpose”.

    “What a contrast to the Misfits last week! Enjoyable, likeable and with some humour. You were willing them to succeed as a family against the odds. Felt the ending left the conclusion too open - did they stay together, did the minari crop bail them out, did the son recover, did they have to move back to California? No real clues as to where they went from the rather contrived fire. Thanks”.

    “The second time I have seen this film and enjoyed it just as much. The acting of all the principal characters was superb, esp David and Grandma. It was good to see an immigrant story focus on their experience and did not have a 'racism' agenda. I liked the subtle way the family ties of each community were juxtaposed, e.g. the implied use of the stick in the Korean side and the neglectful side (the parents of David’s friend) as negative but genuine warmth in other incidents. Also it was believable, esp the way the relationship between David and Grandma was handled. It was clear that they would be reconciled but it done in a way that was not overly 'smaltzy'. My wife and I both thought there were other incidents we saw in the cinema and wondered whether there were slightly different versions”.

    “Beautifully filmed and very touching. What an amazing child actor. Unique story so simply told – loved the music too. Deserved all the awards”.  “Good performances from all the main characters, especially David”. “An everyday story of country folk”. “Brilliant film in every way”.

    “Endeavour, fragility, sensitivity, growth, understanding! A superb film with warmth alongside tragedy”. “Great topic – sufficient twists and turns”.

    “David was the star. Not as uplifting as we hoped”. “Delightful film. Thoroughly enjoyed it”. “Not really ‘feel-good’.”   “Lyrical and beautiful”.

    “Strange – but interesting and well filmed! (A little problem with the continuity)”. “Outstanding performances from all the main characters”. “Great acting performances – specifically the boy”. “Only positive was the family were drawn together by disaster. David was the catalyst for this”. “Really enjoyed the film and the acting. Rather simplistic ending”. “Loved the acting”.


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