Cowboy boots on American grass worn by the child of Korean immigrants make for a loving cross-cultural statement in Lee Isaac Chung’s disarmingly heartwarming and unassumingly poetic “Minari.” Similar to last year’s “The Farewell,” this gentle miracle of a movie is centered on distinct impressions ripe with universality.
Greener pastures entice the Yi family to move from California to rural Arkansas during Ronald Reagan’s 1980s. Father Jacob (Steven Yeun) and mother Monica (Han Yeri) earn an honest living by chicken sexing (separating poultry by gender), but he aspires to build something of his own, to farm his land and grow Korean vegetables on the best American dirt. She misses city life and is displeased with their humble trailer home. Compromise ensues for the sake of their U.S-born kids.
Chung’s slice of life drama is on par with Hirokazu Kore-eda’s intimate portrayals of family life under pressure but with the added specificity on the adaptation and reinvention that’s involved as the straining circumstances occur in a new country. From its opening shots of landscapes seen from a car, which echo those in Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away,” set to the delicately melodic score by composer Emile Mosseri (“The Last Black Man in San Francisco”), “Minari” beams with subtle wonder.
Immaculately crafted to the most minuscule production design detail, “Minari” mines significance from the plot’s built-in wisdom, such as the water and the lack thereof standing as a metaphor for the necessary components for growth, for both the crops and the people tending to them. Cinematographer Lachlan Milne (“Hunt for the Wilderpeople”) lenses “Minari” with a graceful brush of light, giving the outdoor scenes a nearly angelic quality. Inside, faint colors dominate matching the Yi’s modest but proud conduct.
Irremediably, the world is bound to become smitten with Alan Kim, the breakout star playing the Yi’s young son David, who’s learned from his father to use his mind to solve problems and never to pay for what he can get for free. Chung lets David’s bright-eyed inquisitiveness and unfiltered opinions speak tacitly about the intricacies of an existence shaped by his parents’ attempts to realize the elusive American Dream.
Health complications prevent David from being a rambunctious boy, so instead he listens and stares intensely to accurately assess adults around him, his older sister Anne (Noel Cho), the unknown place where they now find themselves, and later a visitor from the motherland. Not ceremonious but lighthearted, his maternal Grandma (Yuh Jung Youn, “Sense8”) challenges David’s standards for how a grandmother should behave.
Youn, a respected veteran Korean actress, charms her way into the audiences’ hearts with the prankish dynamic she develops with the adorable and thoughtful Kim. Together they represent what was left behind at home and what’s been nurtured away from it, and in the juxtaposition their similarities, far more than differences, surface. It’s a fascinating, non-traditional, intergenerational, and bicultural union. Grandma shows him minari, an herb used in Korean cooking that’s easily cultivated, and he gets her hooked on Mountain Dew.
Following his magnificent supporting role in “Burning,” Yeun continues to do his best work in Korean-language roles, this time also having the task of speaking accented English that’s reflective of it being a second language rather an offensive mockery. He succeeds. Banter with local Christian friend and employee Paul (Will Patton) influences the way Jacob thinks about Americans and links the Yis to the white community where they’ve settled, without overt malice coming their way, only harmless ignorance.
An extra layer in Chung’s formidable screenplay — one that’s so inconspicuously complex, since he weaves each dramatic thread to fit with the natural flow of the life he’s written for his characters — focuses on the marital issues Jacob and Monica endure as result of his determination to make money off the land. Showing impressive range, Yeri’s interpretation of Monica mutates from softness (when she bathes Jacob after a hard day) to disappointment, but whatever her demeanor is, we know there’s more care than selfishness in her logic.
Each member of the Yi family is learning to be who they are in a new environment, to balance the traits of their Korean identity with the new one they are constructing, living and working in the United States. There’s so much beauty in that process, and Chung relays it with tender prowess, as an expertly humanistic director and someone with intimate knowledge of this experience. In the midst of so much change, tribulations, and variables outside of their control, the only unmovable factor is what they feel for each other. Their ability to forgive each other’s small and big sins will determine how much they can achieve together.
Count “Minari” among the very best movies of 2020 already, for all its endearing cheekiness and affecting virtues, the greatest among them being honoring human resilience. We replant our roots when we are uprooted, and though the land may be foreign, the seeds of hope for a better tomorrow are always the same. Watered with fortifying love, we too, like minari, can regrow anywhere.