Minari is a quiet film, sometimes to its detriment. However, in its simple, no-frills story of quiet strength and endurance despite the struggles around the characters, Minari draws you in.
Korean immigrants Jacob and Monica Yi (Steven Yeun and Yeri Han) move from California to Arkansas with their children Anne (Noel Kate Cho) and David (Alan S. Kim). Despite Monica's fierce misgivings, Jacob sees an opportunity to enter the Korean food market by growing Korean fruits and vegetables to sell in Dallas. He and Monica will pay for their new farm by working at a local chicken harvesting plant to sort out baby chicks.
Monica is especially concerned for David, who has a heart condition. As the Yis attempt to acclimate to Arkansas, they find they need help with the children. Enter from Korea Monica's mother Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung), whom David takes an instant dislike to, insisting she does not look or behave like a real (read: American) grandmother.
Soon, however, Grandma wins David over, and unlike the others believes he is not the weakling he's encouraged to be. He helps her plant minari, but this is the rare bright spot in the Yi household. Jacob's stubbornness about water brings a great crisis to the family, as does Grandma's sudden stroke. Things ebb and flow between triumph and tragedy, where the Yi's marriage is sorely tested. Ultimately though, the Yis are now going to integrate into this new world, even if it means bringing a water diviner to locate new sources to grow Jacob's crops.
Minari is a very quiet film, from its performances to Emile Mosseri's score. Even at what could be considered its somewhat shocking climax there isn't a big push for drama. There are no thunderous performances or bombastic music to pound the distressing situation the Yis now face. The loudest performance, for lack of a better word, is Will Patton as Paul, an eccentric figure who helps Jacob and carries a cross on Sundays to deepen his faith. Even he though is not loud, merely a bit off-kilter.
Writer/director Lee Isaac Chung creates an almost documentary-like manner with Minari, foregoing big dramatic moments for quiet, simple scenes of family life. The Yis are a pretty insular family. We do meet another Korean woman at the chick sorting facility who is friendly with Monica, but the few scenes of the Yis interacting with people are with their Southern neighbors.
Chung also resists the temptation to make whatever culture clashes the Yis encounter either the center of the story or one filled with hostility. On the contrary, the Yis get genuine Southern hospitality. Only David's eventual friend Johnny (Jacob Wade) says anything close to racist, asking David why his face is so flat. This, however, is not done out of malevolent intent but more out of plain curiosity. It should be noted that as American children of immigrants Anne and David speak English and Korean fluently. Even Grandma picks up a few English words.
The performances in Minari are all universally excellent. Yeun's Jacob is a driven but not hostile man, one who wants to be successful both for his children and himself. This drive to succeed does blind him to his family's need for a father and husband, but we know his heart is in the right place. Han's Monica is not silent but reserved, one who does express her frustrations and fears but who also fears for her family.
Alan S. Kim is delightful and charming as David, playing him as direct but generally not malicious. Even when he serves Grandma a surprising drink and not the "mountain water" (their code for Mountain Dew) she thought it was, we see he was more naughty than monstrous. The interplay between him and Youn works so well. Cho sadly was a bit lost in the shuffle and at times comes across as a bit blank but in her defense Anne at times seems an afterthought.
The clear standout is Youn as Grandma. She is delightful, loving and caring for David, aware that he can do more than even he thinks. She has common sense, such as when chiding Monica when she breaks down over gifts Soon-ja brought her daughter. "You're crying, over anchovies?" she asks. At times she is a bit oblivious, such as when she mishears David's complaint that she isn't like a real Grandma by saying, "You like Grandma? Thank you", but throughout her scenes we see a wise, caring woman. Youn's Grandma is the type we either were blessed with or wish we had.
Again though sometimes the quiet nature of Minari works against it. Sometimes the children seem blank to catatonic, particularly when seeing Grandma in her stroke-stricken condition. They show little panic or worry and not much puzzlement. Even at the climatic scene there is a slight remoteness that I found a bit hard to believe. Granted, this is a minor issue, but it does remove me slightly from the situation.
Minari is a true immigrant story and an uniquely American one too. With beautiful performances and a simple story it will win over audiences who either can relate to this story or maybe even lived aspects of it.