‘Minari’ movie review: Korean ‘coming to America’ tale full of heart

WATCH: 'Minari' trailer

The standard “coming to America” story is nothing new, and all of the typical elements are there in Minari: the fish-out-of-water alienation, the isolation, the mistrust of the denizens, the difficulty in starting anew.

What stands out about director Lee Isaac Chung’s version of this much-told story is the authenticity of it, the realness. From the moment we begin the story of Jacob (Steven Yeun) and Monica (Yeri Han), parents to young children David (Alan S. Kim) and Anne (Noel Cho), as they move from California to Arkansas to start up a farm in the 1980s, we’re hooked and emotionally invested. These stories about moving to a new place are often told from a bird’s-eye view, by what feels like an observer.

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Not so with Chung’s movie. He himself grew up on a small farm in Arkansas, the exact setting of Minari, and the moments we bear witness to feel genuine and universal. Sure, many of us are not immigrants and have the fortune of growing up where we were born, but this story manages to transcend that mental boundary, bringing us right to the heart of it.

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How does the movie do that?

It’s a combination of things. The cast, first of all, is outstanding, from troubled little David to anxiety-ridden Monica, and every scene is a treat, even if something is going wrong for the family. Yeun in particular manages to capture the mental agony of jump-starting life and bringing your family along with you on a hope and a prayer.

About midway into the film, we meet Soonja (Yuh-jung Youn), Monica’s mother, who comes to live with the family in Arkansas. Along with all of her Korean treats and gifts for her family, she also brings a certain zest to the movie. She’s hilarious, brash and outspoken, not the usual qualities we associate with a grandmother.

There is also a lushness to the farm life, the expanse of the tilled fields reaching out to the horizon. Opportunities seem endless, an apt metaphor for the burgeoning family. While this movie speaks directly to a Korean immigrant’s experience, somehow it feels like it could apply to any of us.

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What, exactly, is minari?

Minari is a bitter watercress plant used in Korean cooking, which flourishes in swampy, waterlogged environments. As with the endless expanse of farm fields, the versatile little plant represents the growth of the family in its new home. Throughout the movie, Jacob struggles to maintain consistent water flow to his crops, and he always has water on his mind. Not to pound the imagery into oblivion, but it’s clear that minari, the farm and the growth of crops are all connected, showing that with proper care and attention, anything can thrive.

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Why is there all this controversy surrounding the movie?

In case you weren’t aware, there has been much controversy about Minari. It all began when the movie was nominated for Best Foreign Film at the 2021 Golden Globes (which it will win, hands-down), but didn’t get nominated for Best Picture overall. The Hollywood Foreign Press Association — the voting body of the Globes — defended its nominations by pointing out that the majority of the movie is in Korean, not English, which categorizes it as a foreign film, even though director Chung was born an American in Denver, Colo.

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There are many eloquent arguments out there that have stated the issue better than I can, but aside from the above and the movie’s lack of Best Picture nomination, it’s appalling that none of the actors in this cast received any nominations for their work. Without a doubt, Yeun, Youn and Kim, at the very least, should be on nominee lists for their performances here. Maybe they will get some, come Oscar nominations time on March 15.

Does the movie have any faults?

In all the glowing reviews online there aren’t many negative facets highlighted; while the overall scope and final product are both outstanding, there are a few points of weakness in the movie. One is the characters outside of the immediate family. Thinly drawn, we aren’t made privy to their motivations or reasons for inclusion.

No spoilers, but the ending isn’t very satisfying. It was frustrating to have all this buildup and not get the proper catharsis, so it feels abrupt and open-ended. Upon further consideration, maybe that’s the point: the path of this family is undetermined, and could really go anywhere.

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So what's the bottom line?

Aside from a few minor weak points, Minari is a heartfelt, sincere movie that’ll stick with you long after it’s over, particularly if you’re an immigrant or come from an immigrant family. The sacrifice it takes to “make it” in a different place is immense, often at the cost of things you hold dear. Minari immerses you in that experience, and makes you appreciate what you have.

‘Minari’ will be available on all digital and on-demand platforms across Canada on Feb. 26, 2021.

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