‘Minari’ is a movie about the immigrant experience that’s both universal and surprising

Ann Hornaday

THE WASHINGTON POST – To call Minari uncannily timely almost does it a disservice. This modestly scaled but enormously heartfelt drama touches on any number of so-called hot buttons, including immigration, assimilation, the American Dream and the fluctuations of identity. But it’s not about those things. Rather, this is the funny, sad, inspiring and ultimately universal story of how one family experiences displacement and belonging, in ways that never quite line up with conventional expectations.

Minari opens as a Korean woman named Monica (Yeri Han) drives her two children Anne (Noel Kate Cho) and David (Alan Kim) to their new home, a low-slung, ramshackle farmhouse set in the middle of a field in rural Arkansas. The family’s patriarch, Jacob (Steven Yeun), has picked it out: After trying to make a go of it in California, he has decided that his fortunes lie in growing Korean vegetables in the Ozarks, a dream he is determined to make a reality while he and Monica work at a nearby chicken plant.

Viewers may think that they can predict what comes next: Jacob and his family will encounter nativist hostility from their insular neighbours; Anne and David will endure heartbreak as they try to fit in; Jacob’s aspirations will be dramatically rewarded. Or melodramatically dashed.

Well, yes and no. The great strength of Minari is that writer-director Lee Isaac Chung is far too perceptive and confident in his own story to make it conform to predetermined beats. Based on his own childhood in the 1980s, growing up on a small farm in Arkansas, Minari possesses the unforced, utterly convincing rhythms of life as it really unfolds: with humour, conflict, disappointment, moments of unexpected grace and perseverance that is no less heroic for being so finely drawn and understated.

It’s difficult to describe what makes Minari so appealing without spoiling its myriad surprises – sequences that were no doubt inspired by Chung’s own upbringing that ring with truth and also wacky eccentricity. Things get a lot saltier when Monica’s mother Soonja shows up to help out with the kids; played by Yuh-Jung Youn in a deadpan performance that has already earned its share of critics awards, this flinty character takes the archetype of potty-mouthed granny into territory that is simultaneously warmly familiar and winningly new.

Equally gratifying is the way Chung depicts encounters between Jacob’s family and their Arkansan neighbours, neatly sidestepping glib stereotypes to illuminate more nuanced realities. At first, Will Patton might seem to be going perilously over the top with the man who helps Jacob in the fields, a fundamentalist who is given to speaking in tongues. But as their friendship deepens, what threatened to be a trite culture clash turns into something far more interesting.

The same could be said for the plot of Minari, which in some ways follows a tried-and-true formula but, thanks to the filmmaker’s sure hand and the easy chemistry of his cast, never feels predictable or stale. Minari is that rarity in a cinematic culture dominated by shallow bombast or pretentious transgression for its own sake: It’s a good movie, executed with affectionate humour, wistful honesty and tender care.

You should see it. You won’t be sorry.

From left: Steven Yeun, Alan Kim, Yuh-Jung Youn, Yeri Han and Noel Kate Cho in ‘Minari’. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST