Time Out says
Lee Isaac Chung mines his own Midwestern childhood in a family drama overflowing with heartache and hope
The edible Korean weed from which this bittersweet, beguiling family drama takes its name tends to grow quickly and then die out, before returning with merry abandon in its second year. This perfect herby comeback metaphor lies at the heart of Lee Isaac Chung’s tale of root-planting and resilience, a film that explores life’s painful knack for making you struggle hard to find your place, before you can even think about flourishing.
When we meet them, Minari’s young Korean-American family are definitely not flourishing. Dad Jacob (Steven Yeun) has big dreams of turning a remote patch of Arkansas farmland into a lucrative Korean vegetable business, and his wife Monica (Yeri Han) is slipstreaming behind him in a station wagon loaded with their belongings and her major reservations. For their two American-born kids, cherubic David (Alan S Kim) and the slightly older Anne (Noel Cho), it’s all too new and exciting for the prospect of life in a mobile home and the general isolation to feel like a drag. Not when there’s Mountain Dew in the fridge.
Exactly how much Chung is showing us of his own Arkansas childhood in the family’s struggle, rows and joys is impossible to say. But more importantly, he’s sharing what it feels like to try to assimilate: the halting exchanges with the well-meaning and casually racist alike, the conversations that peter out, the sense of losing something old without gaining the new thing that’s supposed to replace it. The arrival of grandma (Yuh-jung Youn) with suitcases of Korean treats and a viscous nostrum – hanyak – to help David’s heart murmur ramps up that sense of a family buffeted by a kind of cultural plate tectonics.
Emile Mosseri’s lilting score bathes the film in nostalgia and sadness one moment, hope and optimism the next. There’s so much to love in the performances it’s impossible to single any out but Yuh-jung is a force of nature, run close by Will Patton’s Pentacostal farmer, a Korean War veteran who acts like a man in constant contact with a live electrical wire and who finds divine meaning in literally everything. His generosity of spirit, often strangely expressed but sincere to the bone, is emblematic of a film that prizes kindness and connection above all else.
With liberal use of the expansive Midwestern skies and gauzy afternoon sun, Chung conjures something elemental and sweeping from this tapestry of small moments. Minari takes his own experiences as a boy growing up in Arkansas and forges something almost Malickian from them (think The Tree of Life without the dinosaurs and intellectual grandeur), as it explores our link to, and responsibilities for the land and each other. It’s at once intimate and expansive – a film with a big heart and not a bad word to say about anyone.
Available on VOD in the UK. In UK cinemas May 17.
Cast and crew
Alan S Kim