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3 reviews, 2 user ratings

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by Peter Sobczynski

"An American Tale"
5 stars

Although I, as a rule, have not given anything remotely resembling a damn about the Golden Globes since the time they voted Pia Zadora the Best New Star back in 1981 (even though she had co-starred in “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians” 17 years earlier), I could not help but be somewhat taken aback to hear that, because of the tacky-tack rules of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, “Minari,” a film which has been receiving acclaim ever since it premiered at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, was ruled ineligible for the Best Motion Picture—Drama prize because it is a prize that is reserved for English-language films and more than 50% of the dialogue is in Korean. While even those who inexplicably take the Golden Globes seriously would have to admit that this ruling is unlikely to damage the film in any significant way—both “Roma” and “Parasite” were disqualified from the top prize for the same reason and it had little effect on their fates—what makes it particularly egregious in this case is the fact that it happens to tell a uniquely American one in the way that it charts the ups and downs of a family trying to pursue the American dream in a way that viewers of all nationalities will be able to respond to with equal amounts of delight.

Set in the 1980s, “Minari” begins as Korean immigrant Jacob (Steven Yeun) arrives in rural Arkansas with his wife, Monica (Yeri Han) and their two kids, daughter Anne (Noel Kate Cho) and young son David (Alan Kim), to live his dream of becoming a farmer and growing produce that he can sell to the local Korean community. It soon becomes obvious that while Jacob does love his family, he may not have been entirely forthcoming to them regarding his plans. While the kids are amused by Jacob’s explanation of the “big garden” that he will be growing, Monica is appalled by the tiny prefab home on the lot that they will be squeezing into, worried about how her husband has no real working knowledge of the intricacies of farming (he tries to irrigate his crops with water from the house, leading to disaster) and is additionally stressed out by the fact that David also suffers from a heart defect that could develop into something much worse in a flash. When Jacob suffers from initial stumbles in his new career, Monica, in addition to everything else, ends up taking a job so that there is at least some money coming into the home.

At first, Jacob’s determination to make a success of himself and his farm prevents him from recognizing just how unhappy the rest of his family is becoming along the way as they struggle to adapt to their new circumstances. Eventually, two people arrive to lend a hand in unexpected ways. Although Jacob has been determined to get his farm going on his own and without resorting to traditional American methods, he finally gives in and accepts the help of Paul (Will Patton), a good-hearted born-again neighbor whose curiosity towards his new neighbor eventually develops into a friendship. More importantly, as a way of placating Monica, Jacob agrees to allow her mother, Soonja (Youn Yuh-jung) to move in with them and to help look after Anne and David. David is not particularly thrilled with this development at first—with her goofy sense of humor and her inability to do things like bake cookies, she does not fit the traditional grandmother mode—but as Jacob is out tying to make his dream come true, David begins to develop a real relationship with Soonja.

There are any number of reasons why I liked “Minari” as much as I did but one of the main ones is the fact that it was constantly surprising me. Considering the fact that it deals with a Korean family attempting to achieve the American dream in small-town Arkansas, I pretty much expected that the story would find Jacob and his family facing racist resistance from their neighbors and eventually turn into an achingly sincere but familiar story about tolerance. Instead, writer-director Lee Issac Chung avoids all of that for the most part—the locals that they come across, chiefly Paul, are welcoming to the newcomers and there are few traces of any racial tension. Of course, such an approach could lead to accusations that Chung is deliberately leaving such potentially charged material out in order to pursue a more idealized vision of the pursuit of the American dream. However, it is clear that Chung is working from a more personal place here—the film is said to be inspired by his own childhood experiences—and to stick that in might have thrown off the delicate balance of the gentle family drama at hand.

“Minari” is also blessed with an array of lovely performances from the entire cast. In his first major film role since his scene-stealing turn in “Burning,” Yuen is quite strong as Jacob as he charts his character and his growing frustration as his dreams of success as a farmer come up against any number of unavoidable obstacles that clearly never occurred to him when he started off on his plan. Han is just as good as Monica, channeling her own anger and frustrations into helping to keep her family going despite those obstacles. Will Patton is one of those character actors who is almost always good and indeed, he does an excellent job here of taking a character that really could have come across like a cliche and makes him into a real and recognizable person. However, it is Youn Yuh-jung as Soonja who pretty much steals the film whenever she pops up on the scene—you have no doubt seen many irascible grandmother characters over the years but rarely have you seen it done as well as she does here.

“Minari” is not a perfect film, I suppose. Some of the developments in Chung’s screenplay may be a little too neatly diagrammed for their own good and the decision to present the story from the perspective of young David has a tendency to mute the impact of some of the more dramatic elements. However, what the film does, it does so well few audiences will come away from it feeling unmoved or unsatisfied. I do realize that the subtitle issue may keep some potential viewers away but that would be their loss, especially since the story and emotions that Chung is trying to convey are universal enough to transcend language barriers. “Minari” is a sweet and inspirational family drama that tells a deceptively simple story in an eminently relatable manner and with a lot of heart and humor to boot.

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originally posted: 02/12/21 11:36:39
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2020 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2020 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

8/13/21 Louise (the real one) Well crafted, with good performances. You can't help but connect with it. 4 stars
3/14/21 Guest Ethnic identity aside, this is the American dream with all its struggles and pitfalls. 4 stars
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  11-Dec-2020 (PG-13)
  DVD: 18-May-2021



Directed by
  Lee Isaac Chung

Written by
  Lee Isaac Chung

  Steven Yeun
  Yeri Han
  Yuh-Jung Youn
  Alan S. Kim
  Noel Cho
  Will Patton

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