Steven Yeun, Yeri Han, Yuh-Jung Youn, Will Patton, Alan S. Kim, Noel Cho, Darryl Cox, Esther Moon, Scott Haze, Eric Starkey
Directed by Lee Isaac Chung
The American dream is alive and well in Lee Isaac Chung’s semiautobiographical “Minari” starring Steven Yeun (“The Walking Dead”) as the patriarch of a Korean-American family that leaves California for the rugged Ozarks in search of a new life as farmers during the 1980s. Much more than another immigrant tale, Chung’s fourth feature resonates with all parents who strive to build a better life for their children.
You’ll fall in love with the Yi family who we meet as they arrive in rural Arkansas to begin a new life away from the hustle and bustle of Los Angeles. Out of the station wagon jump the children, 6-year-old David (Alan S. Kim) and his older sister Anne (Noel Kate Cho), filled with excitement as they run through the overgrown field where their new home sits, a single-wide trailer minus stairs. “Look they’re wheels!” David exclaims as the kids examine the tires on their new home. Jacob stands upright, hands on his hips, taking in the scenery with a smile on his face that indicates pride. However, the feeling of enthusiasm doesn’t extend to matriarch Monica (Yeri Han) who just sees a dilapidated mobile home in the middle of a pasture with no neighbors in sight. “What is this place?” she asks while using both her arms to try and hoist herself inside the trailer which sits on cinder blocks four feet off the ground.
Jacob plans to make a big garden to grow his own crops, a mixture of Korean vegetables he can sell to the nearby markets, but Monica questions his plans citing his lack of agricultural experience and the less than appealing location of their new home which certainly doesn’t qualify as a farm, at least not yet. Jacob insists they’re standing on the best dirt in America.
Before they can get the farm off the ground, Jacob and Monica go to work at a local hatchery holding down jobs as chicken sexers — it’s what they did for a living in L.A. — which means you spend the day examining baby chicks to determine their sex. The females are kept for egg and meat consumption while most of the males are discarded. Jacob is an expert, working at twice the speed of most sexers, although he’s ready to give it up for his own business as a farmer.
Yeun who first crossed our path 10-years ago as Glenn on “The Walking Dead” and went on to deliver solid performances in features that include “Sorry to Bother You” and “Burning” is wonderful to watch as Jacob who temporarily loses sight of his family as farming ambitions take priority. Award-winning South Korean actress Yeri Han makes her American feature debut as Monica with a nuanced performance that highlights a mother’s concern for stability and the survival of the family unit.
Monica is a strong female who refuses to take a backseat to Jacob and while she may not shower him with outward signs of affection, the faith that she continues to bestow in Jacob is better than any “I love you” but as their relationship is tested Han and Yeun deliver quite a few devastating moments. Both actors have the capability of expressing themselves clearly using just facial expressions which in this case are more crushing than actual dialogue.
The supporting cast is one of the strongest this year with great character actor Will Patton, whose face is instantly recognizable, as Paul, the Yi family’s eccentric neighbor, a soft-spoken evangelical Christian who speaks in tongues, performs exorcisms, and shoulders a wooden cross down rural Arkansas roads every Sunday. Patton whose appeared in over 70 films and 20 television shows, plays a great villain but here he plays such a loveable character that this is easily one of his best performances.
Then when Yuh-Jung Youn enters the story as Monica’s mother Soonja, the 73-year-old actress elevates the film while competing with 7-year-old Alan S. Kim to see who can steal the most scenes. The rivalry between the two characters is funny as David protests the fact that he has to share a room with his grandmother. By the end of the film, they form an unbreakable bond that’s heartwarming.
“Minari” gets its name from the peppery Korean herb that Soonja plants down by the river. As the family faces one setback after another, at times on the brink of losing everything, the minari continues to flourish and the viewer is left with the feeling that so will this family.
Now showing in theaters. Available On-demand February 26