It’s terribly ironic that the new film MINARI has been nominated as Best Foreign Language Film by the Golden Globes. Granted, the majority of the film is spoken in Korean, but it could not be more universal in its story of an immigrant family striving for the American dream. No matter how the Hollywood Foreign Press categorizes it, this is one wonderful film from writer/director Lee Isaac Chung. He has turned his memories of being raised as a child in 1980s Arkansas into the “feel-good” movie of the year, maybe of the last few years.
Chung is now in his 40s, which gives him a greater perspective on that period, even though he was merely six at the time. His story’s conduit is David Yi (Alan S. Kim), a little boy who interprets his dad’s dream of starting a farm as a whole new playground of open fields for him. Even so, Chung’s truest empathy is with the father’s character. Jacob (Steven Yuen) is a dreamer, a family man who, like most Americans, wants a better life. His desire for one doesn’t exactly match the realities of what he’s plunked them down in, and that’s where the drama and the humor of this family saga emanates from.
The farm will have to be started from scratch, and Jacob is a novice about most all that’s required. Still, his vigor and a positive attitude go a long way. That’s good because the home he’s secured for them is a run-down trailer, propped up on cinder blocks, and such harsh realities don’t sit well with his pragmatic wife Monica (Yeri Han). She’s worried their savings earned from toiling in California for years will evaporate in an instance and doesn’t wholly buy into Jacob’s belief that growing Korean fruits and vegetables will even find a market in the South.
Fortunately, Jacob has moved them close to a hatchery where they can find similar work as they did in the Golden State, should the farm fail. After immigrating from Korea, the Yi’s found work as“chicken sexers” checking the gender of thousands of chicks daily. The work was monotonous but determining which birds were female vs. male was essential as the females were more valuable due to their eggs and meat. It’s a sly commentary on Jacob’s insecurities as the male chicks are discarded, underlining the worry that his farming dreams might be just as disposable.
He wants his wife Monica to approve, and even though she’s skeptical, she’s no one-note harpy. Monica is a layered character, played expertly by Han, and is a woman who loves her husband and understands his dreams. They have a fun rapport as well and are good parents to David and his slightly older sister Anne (Noel Cho). Soon enough, Monica gets the house into shape and even takes a job at the hatchery to ensure money is coming in. Thankfully, Jacob is wise enough to hire a knowledgeable, local farmhand Paul (Will Patton) to help out. Paul may be a scruffy eccentric with goofy glasses, but he knows the land and will expertly guide Jacob every step of the way from planting to harvest.
Chung is terrific at developing all of these characters and finding the universal qualities in all of them. He never lets Monica become a cliched “tiger mom” and even though Paul is an avid Pentecostal, he’s the real McCoy, not a hopeless hypocrite. Paul is a passionate believer, even lugging a cross around on the weekends to relate to the plight of Christ. It’s played for some laughs, certainly, but they’re affectionate ones as Paul comes across as sly and lovable, and Patton makes him a delight every time he shows up in the film.
The director is not only wonderful with his cast, never allowing a false note from them, but he applies a similar rigor to his plotting. There’s utter believability in all that occurs here, even when Chung introduces Monica’s difficult mother into the mix. She’s the “fly in the ointment” character, one who enters the story with a reputation for being a pickled pill towards Monica. But when grandma Soonja (Yuh Jung Youn) arrives to help out with the housekeeping and child-rearing, she too is a lovable eccentric. Hilarious too, as her scenes, particularly with David, are comedy gold.
Forced to share his room with her, David is hilariously suspicious of Soonja. He complains about how she smells, the food she makes, her odd assortment of various ointments and remedies, not to mention her inability to grasp that Mountain Dew isn’t water from the mountains. At one point, he loudly critiques her by yelling, “You’re not a real grandma! You don’t bake cookies, you swear, and you wear men’s underwear!” Indeed, Soonja is a bit of a nut, but she lets David’s rants roll off her back and she’s devoted to helping everyone out no matter what occurs.
Indeed, the film’s theme is about perseverance and overcoming obstacles, both big and small. The enduring pluck of this family is wholly endearing and relatable, so much so that you might even forget that you’re reading subtitles throughout.
Every actor is superb, as is the musical score by Emile Mosseri, the cinematography by Lachlan Milne, and the editing by Harry Yoon. The film’s release this weekend, late in the season, is to help its Oscar chances with short-term-memoried voters. It certainly should collect a number of nods as it’s one of the year’s most accomplished films. The timing also feels apropos as we’re all still in some version of lockdown, reliant on our immediate family for connection. It makes Chung’s loving story feel even more relatable and all the more American.