MINARI

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Lee Isaac Chung

Stars: Steven Yeun, Yeri Han, Alan Kim, Yuh-jung Youn, Will Patton, Kate Cho.

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An awards season favourite, Minari is a slow burn semi-autobiographical drama about a Korean family having a hard time while experiencing the American Dream during the Reagan era of the 80s.

Jacob (played by Steven Yeun, best known for his role in the tv series The Walking Dead) has worked as a chicken sexer for over a decade, but he wants something more. He wants to establish his own farm and grow Korean vegetables for the huge Korean population that has emigrated to the US. He moves his family to Arkansas. His wife Monica (Yeri Han, an award winning Korean actress, making her US film debut) is not impressed and grows bitter at this upheaval to her life, while his two children regard the move as something of an adventure. Their youngest son David (Alan Kim) suffers from a heart condition and is sickly. They live in a huge trailer home while he plans to work his large acreage. But Jacob is not a farmer and he struggles, and seems to be headed towards financial ruin, which increases the tension between him and Monica. He receives some help from Paul (Will Patton) a devoutly religious man who has an intimate knowledge of the land.

Then Monica’s mother Soonja (veteran Korean actress Yuh-jung Youn, from the erotic thriller The Housemaid, etc) comes to live with the family. She is a somewhat eccentric but loving older lady who speaks little English, but she dotes on David. A bond slowly develops the two, and this relationship is at the heart of the film.

Minari is a nicely observed family drama that follows Jacob’s aspirations to become successful in his adopted homeland and provide a prosperous life for his family. It also looks at the tensions that develop within the family as hardship strikes. The film serves up some timely observations on the myth of the American Dream and of America’s multi-culturalism, which gives it a contemporary resonance. Exploring themes of family, hope and ambition, the film is both melancholy and downbeat at times but is ultimately uplifting.

Writer/director Lee Isaac Chung (Lucky Life, etc) has based the film on his own experiences growing up on a small farm in rural Arkansas, and the film has a strong personal resonance as it explores some universal themes and the clash of cultures and generations. This slice of life drama is suffused with pathos, and Chung brings warmth and compassion to the material.

Yeun gives a good performance here as the stubborn and driven Jacob. In his first feature film role Kim has a cheeky presence as the precocious David, while Youn is a delight as the feisty grandmother. In a nice change of pace Patton brings touches of warmth and humour with his understated performance in a rich role as Paul.

The film has been beautifully shot by Australian cinematographer Lachlan Milne (who also shot the superb New Zealand comedy/drama The Hunt For The Wilderpeople, etc. The film’s title comes from the resilient Korean herb that grandmother plants beside a nearby creek, which is a nice metaphor for the film’s central themes of strength and resilience.

★★★★

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