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Minari (2020) Review

Minari is seriously good. This can be said above and beyond its accolades received. Lee Isaac Chung’s semi-autobiographical film sees a newly emigrated family from Korea who moves to the Ozarks in search of a new life. The fact that Minari was overlooked for nominations for Best Picture created some controversy before the Golden Globes.

It’s tough to not be critical of distributor A24’s move in placing Minari in the Foreign Film category at the Globes. The Golden Globes’ rules state that in order for a film to be considered for any category other than Foreign Film, more than 50% of the film must be in English. American filmmakers of Asian descent or otherwise whose films are in a language other than English have been critical. For them, it means a lack of upward mobility because their work does not compete in multiple categories at the Globes, such as the categories with the most prestige, like Best Picture.

Filmgoers might then be surprised to learn that although the bulk of the dialogue is in Korean, Minari is an American story, told by first-generation Americans who have emigrated from Korea. Director Lee Isaac Chung of Munyurangabo fame’s semi-autobiographical story received a robust number of nominations from other awards ceremonies, including the Screen Actors’ Guild Awards for Steven Yeun’s performance.

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This makes the little Asian-American film that could Oscar bait. Not a bad thing. Although I’m going to freely admit I haven’t watched the Oscars since 2002. Good thing the Oscars have no such convention about the Foreign Film category. I’m hopeful that, with last year’s cleanup by Bong Joon-Ho with Parasite, Minari could stand a fighting chance at the 2021 Oscars. If it doesn’t, it is still a quality film. And the buzz of prominent Korean-American actor Steven Yeun has made Minari a film to watch for at the Oscars.

Steven Yeun, best known as Glenn Rhee from The Walking Dead, has moved on to new projects not involving zombies. Between Yeun’s work on TBS’s Final Space and achieving international acclaim from Lee Chang-dong’s thriller Burning, he has clearly made good use of his time and career since his big break with The Walking Dead.

Yeun is certainly a treat to watch in Minari, along with all of his supporting cast. Jacob Yi (Yeun) is a hardworking father who moves with his wife Monica (Han Ye-Ri, Secret Zoo) and children David (Alan Kim) and Anne (Noel Cho) out East to small-town Arkansas from LA in the 1980’s after emigrating from Korea. Jacob dreams of owning a farm and growing a variety of Korean produce so that he can become a local supplier for Asian grocers.

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Jacob and Monica have an evening job sexing chickens at the local chicken plant, working tirelessly to provide for their family while Jacob uses his off-hours to get the farm in order. Jacob speaks little English and is taciturn and a bit abrupt with strangers. Despite this, he humorously manages to enlist the help of a neighbour named Paul (Will Patton, Halloween, Boarding School) as a farmhand, through the purchase of a tractor. Paul is religious and kooky, and you worry at times that he is just a little bit too nuts, but he and Jacob become fast friends in their own way.

Monica, removed from her own social networks with no friends or support, is less than enamoured with the idea of her husband owning a farm. She longs to return to church and have friends herself, instead of living in a double-wide in the middle of absolute nowhere, an hour’s drive from anything. Including the hospital that they need access to for David’s heart murmur, a stressor on the family that lurks under the surface. Anne takes care of her little brother, trying to ensure that he doesn’t run, and disturb his weak heart. But little David, you can tell that he is dying to run the expanse of the fields of their big open farm.

It’s interesting to think that Anne and David are, in this film set in the ’80s, some of the first of the latchkey kid generations. They’re too young to be home alone while their parents are at work, and they drink Mountain Dew and watch American wrestling. Monica and Jacob use the last of the energy that they have at the end of the day to bicker at each other over, what else do couples bicker over? Money. Jacob needs it to start up his farm. From slugs to water access, he is beset with problems. While he’s cutting financial corners in order to dig his own well for water and planting crops with the help of free labour from Paul, he can’t seem to get ahead. Monica continues to view the farm as a petty distraction, and now, being so far from anything, she is worried about David’s health.

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Monica and Jacob continue to explore options about how they can take care of their kids when they are at work. Monica asks for help from her mom, Soonja (Yuh-Jung Youn, The Bacchus Lady, Beasts Clawing at Straws). The arrival of Anne and David’s grandmother flips the entire family dynamic, as she is sly, silly, fun, and full of wisdom, but hopeless at cooking or baking cookies, much to David’s disappointment. Instead, she teaches David and Anne card games and watches American wrestling with them.

There is so much to enjoy about Minari. The pacing is perfect, allowing us to get to know all of the small cast of characters as well while delivering important details about the story. Minari is a slow burn, but full of unexpected twists and turns from start to finish. I was always pleasantly surprised. The story has a script that is well-written and executed, anchored with compelling and delightful cast performances. The gorgeously rendered cinematography captures the beautiful setting. Oklahoma, with its golden fields, emerald green trees and vivid blue skies, stands in for Arkansas. It is at times both bone-dry and lush and gorgeous, setting the stage for the versatile and hardy minari, the most tenacious of all the plants.

In the aftermath of COVID-19, Hollywood has certainly been forced to adjust its filmmaking techniques and way of doing business. But one thing has become clear – small, independently made films like Minari are doing well on festival and awards circuits (such as those festival and awards circuits are right now, with COVID-19 lingering) and costing money-making institutions like Hollywood less money than monolith productions like Jurassic Park: Dominion, or Dune.

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It seems like, with last year’s Oscars, Bong Joon-Ho ushered in new acceptance of Asian cinema. With the buzz for Minari ahead of the Oscars, America seems to have embraced diversity on some level. I’ll be rooting for it. Even if it isn’t locked in to win at the Oscars, it’s a character drama that displays Yeun’s acting chops and cements his star power. Seeing him fill out a lead role like this so naturally really hit home to me how much work he has put in while still so young. Yeun is easily one of my favourite actors, and I look forward to seeing him in many more films.

The movie Minari has strange similarities to the plant grown by the creek bed in the film- it’s a piece of cinema that stubbornly refuses to be overlooked with multiple generations of Americans looking out for it, and it is fresh, lush, and beautiful. Hopefully, like the plant itself, the film’s presence invigorates Americans and gives them a sense of hope.

Minari is available VOD streaming everywhere, from A24. I watched it on Apple TV! : )

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