Yeri Han

Minari

02/04/21

Curzon Home Cinema

This is our second Korean language film in a row, but the differences between The Gangster, the Cop, the Devil and Minari couldn’t be more marked. While the former is a brutal, no-nonsense punch to the gut, Minari is gentle, lyrical and beautifully understated – yet within those lovingly crafted twists and turns lies a powerful message about the importance of family and the folly of blind ambition. And, while the first film stays within the harsh confines of an Korean city, this one ventures out into the American midwest.

Jacob Yi (Steven Yeun) is a Korean immigrant, doggedly pursuing his personal dream in the wilds of Arkansas, dragging his wife, Monica (Yeri Han), and his children Anne (Noel Cho) and David (Alan S. Kim) along behind him. Jacob and Monica make their living sexing chicks – and trust me, that really is a valued occupation in this neck of the woods – but Jacob has bigger dreams. He longs to own his own farm, to grow vegetables in order to supply the ever burgeoning numbers of Korean supermarkets around the area.

But it’s going to require some hard graft. First a well needs to be dug, one that will supply him with enough water to get him through that all-important first year. And then the crop needs to be tended, around the clock.

It’s not plain sailing. For one thing, young David has a serious heart condition, which means he must never ever exert himself – and for another, Monica doesn’t share Jacob’s ambitions for the future. She’s not mad about living in a trailer in the middle of nowhere and she hates the unfamiliar wide open spaces that surround her. In order to lighten the load, Monica’s Mother, Soon-ja (Yuh-Jung Youn), is brought over from South Korea to live with the family. Soon-ja is a fascinating character, full of contradictions: at times foul-mouthed and openly rude towards her white neighbours; at others sweet, wise and warmly supportive of her grandchildren. David is initially dismissive of her but her influence on him and the rest of the family soon takes root, just as effectively as the Minari seeds she plants down by the creek…

This is a gorgeous film, beautifully acted by the cast – particularly by Yuh-Jung Youn, whose performance has already been rewarded with heaps of best supporting actor nominations. Alan S. Kim is also a constant delight, offering a skilled performance that belies his tender years.

But this film is much more than just an actor-led piece. Lee Isaac Chung, who also wrote the screenplay, handles the directorial reins with consummate skill, while Lachlan Milne’s shimmering cinematography makes every frame a visual delight. I also love that there are so many surprises here. The local community are not the hostile antagonists familiar from so many multi-cultural dramas, but are supportive and welcoming to their new neighbours. Even the initially forbidding, Paul (Will Paton), a local man given to speaking in tongues and lugging a life-size wooden cross around every Sunday, turns out to be a regular pussycat, who wants nothing more than to befriend these new arrivals.

And… isn’t there just a suggestion here of a miraculous happening within the Yi family? Something that, in their struggle for everyday survival, they barely even notice.

This is an absolute must-see, thoughtful, poignant and at times suspenseful. Miss it and weep.

5 stars

Philip Caveney