With his semi-autobiographical account of rural life “Minari,” writer-director Lee Isaac Chung contemplates his Korean-American roots and the struggles of making it as a farmer in America.
The film stars Steven Yeun as Jacob Yi, a California native who migrates to Arkansas with his family in the hopes of starting a Korean produce farm for Dallas vendors. Jacob’s wife Monica (Han Ye-ri) and kids David (Alan Kim) and Anne (Noel Kate Cho) aren’t thrilled at the move, but they soon set about acclimating to their new environment.
Jacob and Monica work as chicken sexers for a nearby hatchery to pay the bills and soon realize they need help watching the kids. Monica’s mother Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung) travels from Korea to live with the family, but she finds bonding with the kids — especially David — harder than expected.
Yeun and Ye-ri are phenomenal as Jacob and Monica, perfectly melting from young lovers to exhausted spouses and back again, both occupying their family leadership roles with quiet anxiety.
Monica liked it in California, and Jacob knows it, but it’s clear he expected more support and understanding from her. Yeun and Ye-ri exceed in their ability to imbue every hushed conversation and shouted argument with this backdrop, but their tender eagerness in the film’s brighter moments makes their performances even more impressive.
As problems crop up in the farm’s operation and Jacob and Monica’s relationship finds itself under strain, David opens up to Soon-ja, who encourages him to be active despite his debilitating heart condition, teaches him games and plants minari by the creek with him and his sister. Kim is a talented young performer, and the relationship between him and Yuh-jung’s character is imbued with real warmth.
Yuh-jung’s performance as Soon-ja is a perfect complement to Kim’s David, and provides an added dimension to the strain of Jacob’s isolating farmer dream. The benefits on paper are clear to Jacob, yet the pull of community and modern life are tangible, and Soon-ja’s presence is both a balm and an irritant on the sensitive topic of the family’s new location.
Most weighty is Soon-ja’s bond with David, though. She’s able to reach him, change his perspective on family dynamics and bridge the gap between his old and new lives.
Pristinely shot in an idyllic location and written with natural realism, Chung’s film is understated, but charmingly human and unafraid of the difficult conversations that come with its story. The Yi’s struggles are real and familiar, and their milestones come with the appropriate emotional urgency.
It’s rare for a film this tempered and quiet to catch on in the mainstream, but Chung’s heartfelt quasi-retelling of his own rural childhood nails the balance between tension, true love and the tangible, reliable community that comes with family. “Minari” is about farming, but there’s plenty here for anyone to relate to.
“Minari,” rated PG-13, is now available in theaters and for rent on Google Play, Vudu and Apple TV+.