PARK CITY – Minari is an herb. It is cultivated in different Asian countries under different names but in Korea, it is known as Minari. It grows well anywhere water is close by and cultivates more impressively in its second season. And that is an apt metaphor for Lee Isaac Chung’s exquisite new drama, “Minari,” that debuted at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival on Sunday evening.
The film is set in the 1980s with Jacob (Steven Yeun) guiding an anxious family to their new home, a 50-acre plot of land in Arkansas. His wife, Monica, (Yeri Han) is initially horrified. This is not what she was promised. There dwelling is a mobile home still on wheels that doesn’t even have stairs to get inside (it’s not even as nice as what you’d consider a traditional mobile home). Their children, Anne (Noel Kate Cho) and David (Alan Kim) seem to be taking it much more in stride. David wants to run through their giant garden but is immediately warned to slow down by his mother. The 7-year-old has a dangerous heart murmur that could be deadly if he overexerts himself.
Jacob’s dream has set them all on this new life. He wants to turn this land into a farm where he’ll cultivate Korean vegetables for a growing immigrant population. It will allow him to finally provide for his family as he’s never been able to previously.
As Korean immigrants themselves, finding work hasn’t been easy for the couple. Their previous attempt to settle in California found them working as chicken sexers, inspectors who determine whether a chick is male or female (the former get tossed). Jacob is something of a master at the skillset, but Monica wasn’t fast enough for the factories on the West Coast. Their new chicken processing plant in the Ozarks will let them put food on the table while Jacob invests in his farm, or that’s Jacob’s plan at least. With tension between the couple mounting, Monica’s mother Soonja (Yuh-Jung Youn) travels from Korea to help watch the kids and hopefully lift her daughter’s spirits.
Having never met previously, Grandma is not what David expected. She gives him a Korean tea that she insists will help with his health (surprise, it’s gross), teaches him how to use Hwatu playing cards (much to the shock of his mother) and he’s forced to share his room with her (oh that “grandma smell”). He quickly learns that Grandma is pretty fun. She has an energy and sense of humor his mother lacks and becomes enamored with the “Mountain water” (ahem, Mountain Dew) her grandchildren are addicted to. When David takes her to a creek he’s found on the property, she decides it’s the perfect location to grow Minari. And, voila, the life lessons she can teach to her inquisitive grandson begin.
Grandma may be adjusting better than anyone could have expected, but Jacob’s start up farm is having serious problems. He’s forced to buy water from the county after his well goes dry and his initial produce buyer drops him at the last minute. The pressure of going into debt and living up to the promises he’s made Monica begin to take their toll.
Making things a bit kookier (honestly, there is no other way to describe it) is Paul (Will Patton), a local who convinces Jacob to hire him as a farmhand. Paul practices in his own Christian church (quite literally his own) and the family often see him carrying a wooden cross on Sundays. He also gives prayers and speaks in tongues to cast evil spirits out wherever anyone hints they might be (much to Jacob’s dismay). But he becomes an odd ray of light in the darkness that is descending on Jacob and Monica.
For a serious drama (and yes, there is much at stake), “Minari” is quite funnier than you’d expect. There are hilarious moments between Grandma and David that are better left unspoiled, but both Youn and Kim turn out to be something of a masterful comedic duo. Truthfully, Kim delivers one of the best under 10-year-old performances of a child actor in recent memory. He simply crushes it (likely thanks to a nice assist from Chung’s direction).
Yeun delivers another stellar and nuanced performance in Korean, no less, after his critically acclaimed work in “Burning” last year. At times a bundle of nervous energy, Yeri turns out to be something of a revelation considering her lack of notoriety outside of Asia. Youn, however, delivers the film’s gut-punch though and it’s hard to forget. Initially, it seems like Yeun is doing the heavy lifting, but it turns out it is Youn all along.
During the post-premiere Q&A, Chung revealed that much of his own life and upbringing are engrained in “Minari.” He almost didn’t have to. You can feel the truth in his screenplay. In the confidence and breath, he gives each scene. There is barely a manufactured minute in the film. Everything fits together organically and in a narrative film that is much harder to pull off than it sounds. By telling his story Chung has hit a peak as a filmmaker that might have been unthinkable just a few years ago. As the family in “Minari” also learns, experience and perspective are often the greatest gifts of all. [A-]