To have won both the Grand Jury prize and the Audience Award at last year’s Sundance Film Festival indicates, correctly, that Minari is an artistic triumph as well as a crowd-pleaser. Clearly a passion project for writer-director Lee Isaac Chung, inspired by his own life, it traces a star-crossed Korean family’s experiences trying to work a farm in Arkansas during the 1980s.
If the story isn’t unusual, the details are, and it is those moments of sharp observation and unique behavior that set the film apart. Steven Yeun and Yeri Han play a married couple who are raising two young children when they follow his dream (not hers) to the middle of America, where their new home is a cramped trailer in the middle of a barren field. He wants to develop a farm specializing in Korean vegetables, and almost immediately hits roadblocks, some provided by Mother Nature, others by his stubbornness and naivete. The family suffers one heartbreak after another, while the arrival of Grandma from Korea turns out to be less than a blessing for younger son David, who complains that she isn’t a real Grandma. (She can’t bake cookies and “smells like Korea.”)
Grandma is played by venerable Korean actress Yuh-Jung Youn, who is a natural scene-stealer given plenty of rope by director Chung. Her only competition is the boy who plays her grandson, Alan S. Kim, whom the camera loves. Will Patton also scores points as a religion-crazed workman who brings his own special fervor to farming.
Minari flows through a river of emotions in a natural, understated way that belies the effort that must have gone into their creation. Chung has crafted a highly personal film that anyone can relate to. No wonder it has received so much acclaim. It gets my highest recommendation.
Minari opens in theaters and on VOD Friday, February 12.