It’s ridiculous that “Minari” isn’t up for Best Picture this Sunday at the Golden Globes, instead relegated to the Best Foreign Language Film category despite being largely in English, set in America, directed by an American and produced by A24 in New York.
Either way, it’s one of the most powerful films ever made about the American Dream, winning both the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at Sundance before finally hitting Paid Video On Demand this Friday for $19.99 for the rest of the world to see.
Written and directed by Lee Isaac Chung, the film is a semi-autobiographical tale of a family of Korean-American immigrants who move to 1980s Arkansas to start a farm. We watch the family attempt to irrigate for water and adapt to the local culture, while straining the various interpersonal relationships between the family members.
SAG nominee Steven Yeun quietly plays Jacob like Joel Edgerton in “Loving” (2016), finding plenty of blue-collar projects. “Working outdoors makes me feel alive,” Jacob says. “Wood chopped yourself warms you twice.” There’s a simplistic beauty to Jacob teaching his son to pick a downhill spot to dig a well: “Free water from the mountains.”
Surrounding him are his wife Monica (Yeri Han), who hates working in a “hillbilly” chicken hatchery and would rather move to the big city, all while caring for their responsible daughter Anne (Noel Cho) and mischievous son David (Alan S. Kim).
Still, it’s SAG nominee Yuh-jung Youn who steals the show as the spunky grandma. She may not arrive until a half hour into the movie, but her “no filter” wisecracks are priceless. Playing a board game she shouts, “Outta my way, bastards!” She also laughs at David’s bed-wetting problem by repeatedly joking, “Ding dong broken.”
Don’t worry, the boy gets his revenge in a laugh-out-loud moment, while the grandma later bonds with him by singing the touching title lullaby amid transcendent lens flares.
David’s boyhood perspective is the portal for Chung’s own memories, having grown up the son of Korean immigrants in Arkansas. They say write “what you know,” and many images appear directly pulled from his own experience: showering in a bucket, burning trash in a barrel and worrying that a tornado might rip their trailer right off the ground.
Chung’s directorial debut “Munyurangabo” (2007) premiered at Cannes, where the late Roger Ebert called it “a beautiful and powerful masterpiece.” His fourth feature, “Minari,” deserves similar praise for beautiful high-angle shots of the father’s tractor moving across the field and symbolic wardrobe of the boy in red, white and blue.
Throughout, Chung mines motifs from familiar images like water representing life. While the father obsesses over digging the well, the grandma takes the kids to a river bank to plant Minari, a water dropwort dubbed “Chinese celery” or “Japanese parsley.”
He also paints crucifix imagery, first at church where the grandma can’t believe how fat Americans are and a kid asks why the boy’s face is flat. Driving home, Monica insists, “Let’s work on Sundays.” Such organized religion contrasts with their Korean War veteran neighbor Paul (Will Patton), who carries a wooden cross down the street.
“It’s Sunday,” Paul says, knowing Christ in his heart. “This is my church.”
Best of all, Chung composes the trailer interior to show distance between the father (foreground) and mother (background) as she threatens to leave him for choosing business over family. We won’t spoil the climax, but his final actions reveal his true priorities. The end leaves it up to interpretation whether it’s enough to make her stay.
Ultimately, “Minari” is proof that Asian cinema is the new high bar. Last year, Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite” (2019) won the Oscar for Best Picture, while Lulu Wang’s “The Farewell” (2019) won the Globe for Best Actress. This year, Chloe Zhao’s “Nomadland” is the favorite to win Best Director, but Chung deserves all of the praise in the world.