Lee Isaac Chung’s ode to his childhood days in 1980s Arkansas takes its name from a plant with a peppery root and captures an immigrant experience with delicate poignancy.
In Minari the Korean-American Yi clan relocate from California (where parents separated baby chicks by gender) to the boondocks of the Ozarks.
Patriarch Jacob (Steven Yeun known mainly from AMC’s The Walking Dead) knows obstacles and uncertainty await a dream to develop a substantial farm. But his wife Monica (Hand Ye-ri) and their American born kids, preteen Anne (Noel Cho) and precocious 7-year old David (Alan S. Kim) aren’t nearly as excited about the change of scenery or culture as he is.
The personal touch endowed by Chung works off the vantage point of David with episodic vicissitudes ensuring noticeably affected by a metamorphic event. The notion of assimilation in a milieu of cultivation resonates with a deterministic, if somewhat measured naturalism.
The filmmaking imparts a kind of symbolism from objects, even behavioral tendencies as David gradually learns his way in starting anew like the others. Having his atypical, salty-tongued grandma Soonja over from Korea is a bonus for him and the film as Youn Yuh-jung makes for a delightfully (even ethically) expressive counseling and child-care figure. As Jacob puts in much time after hours to give wife Monica (presumed to be of a higher social class prior to marriage) support.
Minari has a timely quality about it with wrinkles and tweaking from everyday details that Chung stages with distinction that auteurs like Terrence Malick would salute. Though his storytelling arguably achieves more from a resolve against a seeming unwavering adversity. In backup, Will Patton (Megan Leavey) stands out (if a little distracting) as an assisting Bible-thumping type (if in need of some help) seen with a wooden cross on his back.
You see dedication in his role by Yeun who continues to blossom as an actor as a nuanced family drama has that rare heartfelt quality similar to the recent Chinese tragicomedy The Farewell. Being in the presence of this disparate, struggling unit turns out to be rather special.