“Minari” is a deeply personal film, and quality that’s evident in writer-director Lee Isaac Chung’s reminiscence about his childhood. Focusing on a Korean immigrant family, the universal themes come through loud, clear and ultimately with considerable power, even if the movie’s languid pace works against it.
The title refers to a particularly durable crop, which is indicative of the resilience of this family, which has come to rural Arkansas seeking a better life.
The father (“The Walking Dead’s” Steven Yeun) has big dreams, having essentially bet everything on acquiring a mobile home and farming the adjacent land. He and his wife (Yeri Han) work in a nearby factory engaged in the tedious process of “sexing” chickens by day, and she’s understandably skeptical about whether his drive and optimism will be enough to achieve his grand plan.
They also have a couple of kids, including a sensitive young son, David (Alan S. Kim), whose health problems provide another source of understandable concern. With both parents working to keep the lights on (literally, given their water-and-power issues), it’s a relief when grandma (Youn Yuh Jung) comes to stay with them, even if her behavior isn’t deemed maternal enough to satisfy the judgmental boy.
Playing a character who’s foul-mouthed and frank, Youn comes pretty close to stealing the show, although the performances – especially Han – are strong across the board, among them Will Patton as an eccentric neighbor who winds up working for them.
The main challenge for “Minari,” as is so often the case when filmmakers explore biographical material, is it operates in such a minor key, with so little conflict, you really have to give in to its slow-going rhythms, something that’s potentially easier to do in a darkened theater than watching at home. (The film is receiving a theatrical release as well as a streaming showcase, which is where one suspects most will see it.)
“Minari” has already been the subject of debate over its classification, with the Golden Globes’ wrongheaded decision to nominate the movie in its foreign-language film category – accurate only to the extent that most of the dialogue is in Korean. Otherwise, this is a US production that critics have rightly hailed as a quintessentially American story. (The film fared better at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, garnering a nomination for best ensemble cast.)
As noted, Chung has created a movie that’s very specific in the details, in much the way that “The Farewell” resonated with Asian Americans who recognized aspects of their own families. Yet the movie’s inherent charms speak broadly to anyone whose family risked everything on the dream of America, at a time when the country’s hospitality toward immigrants has become a subject infused with greater relevance than just rose-colored nostalgia.
“Minari” premieres Feb. 12 on demand and in theaters.