A South Korean family move to Arkansas during the 1980s to start a new life. The father and mother, Jacob (Steven Yeun) and Monica (Yeri Han), take a job sexing chickens at a local hatchery while also trying to develop their new plot of land into a farm. Their children, David (Alan S. Kim) and Anne (Noel Cho), are far from naïve to the tensions between their parents, and little David, who suffers from a heart condition, is infuriated further when Monica’s mother Soon-ja (Yuh-jung Youn) moves in with them and proves to be an unideal grandma.
The emotional quality of ‘Minari’ is palpable from the get-go. The very first scene sees Jacob and the two kids excited by their new home while Monica, though silent, makes her sense of trepidation clear. So too is the stress and strain of their new situation discernible, the conversations between husband and wife often brimming with underlying tension. Still, there are eureka moments in their relationship, and within the whole family, which give the audience a jolt of joy.
‘Minari’ is punctuated by small but significant personal and cultural moments, such as when the mum adds coverings to the inside of their drawers, while dad teaches his son about the power of the mind. With both parents working so hard, the arrival of Grandma brings a breath of fresh air. Yuh-jung Youn’s performance is hilarious, expressing delight at beating the kids at cards, poking fun at David’s penis (a word she struggle to pronounce) being “broken”, and guzzling down the Mountain Dew which she mistakes for coming from a mountain.
Her arrival also signals a cultural clash as the kids increasingly turn to speaking English in her presence. The siblings bicker, saying “grandma smells of korea”, while David is outraged that not only does she make him drink a recipe with deer antlers (“it’s expensive, drink it all”), but she can’t even bake cookies, and thus isn’t a “real” grandma. The parents seem far more convinced that blending is possible (probably because they ignore such clashes) than the kids.
The film recalls the works of Richard Linklater in its tone and pace. It captures all of life’s little moments just beautifully, but you’re also intrigued to see how the dramatic tensions will play out. Its orientation around family is very touching, but it doesn’t rely on that universality, and the dynamics and narrative are totally enveloping. The Reagan era provides an interesting backdrop, and the film’s playful humour is significant too. At one point, a Caucasian girl keeps saying random words to Anne (who is just a little underdeveloped as a character), hoping that one of them means something in Korean. It’s a funny but also tender scene that doesn’t feel forced or insincere, and reflects childhood innocence.
‘Minari’ manages to make what could have been a worn out story, into something completely unique. There’s a heart-breaking third act, even with enough signals to know what’s coming, then the most beautiful, perfect ending that brings the story full circle. It’s also just a stunning movie to look at, and is impossible to shake after watching. Steven Yeun and Yuh-jung Youn have both been nominated for Oscars, but Yeri Han deserves one too. All the awards attention the movie has been getting is most definitely deserved. Its themes of family, and being driven by money versus passion, are explored with an appealing freshness. Above everything, the genuine nature of the movie is something rarely seen in cinema.
‘Minari’ is showing as part of the East Asia Film Festival Ireland (EAFFI) at the IFI from 26th March. It is available to rent from Volta from 2nd April. See more at minari.film