Review: Minari

Minari had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January of 2020. It won both the U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize and the U.S. Dramatic Audience Award. In October, it won the audience award for Best Narrative Film at the Middleburg Film Festival, as well as the MFF’s Ensemble Cast Spotlight Award. Over the next few months, I fully expect it to make the cut in most every major awards category. And if the success of Parasite is any indication, Minari has a real shot at winning. It’s a foreign film, an American film, an arty film, and a mainstream film all rolled into one. In English and Korean, with subtitles.

Minari tells the story of a Korean-American family that moves from California to a small farm in Arkansas, in search of the American dream. It feels a bit like Little House on the Prairie, except it takes place in the late 1980s instead of the 1880s. The struggles are similar: parents who seek better opportunities for themselves and their kids; a search for community; the cruelties of nature. It’s a tender story with heartbreaking and lighthearted moments – some more predictable than others – pulled off by a strong, endearing multi-generational ensemble cast.

Minari was written and directed by Lee Isaac Chung – himself the son of Korean immigrants – who grew up on a small farm in rural Arkansas, so the material is obviously close to his heart, and that shines through. The exceptional cast includes Korean-American actor Steven Yeun (Burning) as the father, Jacob; Yeri Han as his wife Monica; Noel Cho as daughter Anne, and the adorable Alan Kim as their young son David, who we learn early on has some sort of heart condition. The family moves into a mobile home on a patch of farmland and are soon joined by unconventional Grandma Soonja (Yuh-Jung Youn). She’s a hoot, though David doesn’t quite know what to make of her, and isn’t exactly thrilled to be sharing a room. Grandma ends up planting some minari seeds down by a river – and the minari (water celery) quietly grows as the family endures its ups and downs.

Minari is a family-friendly PG-13 drama that touches on themes of immigration, sacrifice, triumph, tragedy and forgiveness, and the many ways in which we define family and community. It’s one of those films that leaves you thinking – quite simply – “that was really good.”

Arty Chick Weighs in: While I appreciate Minari’s gentle storytelling and performances, I don’t think it rises to the Parasite level. I wasn’t that invested in the success or failure of this immigrant Korean family. I did like the Grandma and the scenes with the little boy allowed the film to include some heartwarming and humorous moments.  But I wish the script had given the mother more to do than be unhappy. It’s a very observational film, beautifully shot though. And very unlike anything else out there right now. 

The film opens in limited release December 11, expanding February 12, 2021.

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