Minari (2020)

1980s US rural life recalled by Korean writer-director 3 March 2021

Must have missed something others saw in Minari (2020), a tale of a Korean family making a start as farmers in 1980s Arkansas.

Quickly scanning the opening paragraphs of published critics from Rotten Tomatoes, most believed this was wonderful. The Grapes of Wrath (1940) rising from the ashes.

Far from a classic, I found Minari worthy but boring.

Jacob (Steven Yuen) and Monica (Yeri Han) bring their children Anne (Noel Cho) and David (Alan Kim) to a house set on wheels in the fertile dirt of Arkansas.

Jacob wants to farm Korean vegetables in a major way (“50 acres is a hobby”) but Monica is taken aback by the primitive location. She makes her feelings evident but the children seem to be happy and she perseveres.

Anne is a respectful near teenager and David is an endearing but wilful, opinionated and searching little boy, whose heart murmur is the family’s major concern.

TOP TWO: Alan Kim and Yuh-jung Yuhn, the best two things about Minari

That is, until things begin to go wrong – as in, nothing at all goes right – and friction between the couple becomes common. To appease his wife, Jacob agrees to her mother, Soonja (Yuh-jung Yuhn) coming from Korea to join them and it is her antics which liven the film up a notch.

However, when Soonja has a stroke, she accidentally destroys Jacob’s hard work while the family are in the city for a combined hospital visit and selling of the farm’s first crop.

Minari is a herb often called Japanese parsley and is planted near a creek bed by the children’s grandma. It becomes significant at the film’s end.

Minari the film has lessons throughout of life in rural America during the 1980s. As told through an ethnic family, it has different nuances but the local people are still filled with hope.

Nearly 40 years later, one can imagine them being the financially destroyed voters lured by Donald Trump in his two US presidential election campaigns. Deep religious beliefs prevail. None more so than Paul (Will Patton), who Jacob hires to help on the farm. Paul spends his Sundays hauling a giant cross down country lanes.

A father’s confusion and desperation is shown in the story of the farm’s water. When he explains to David how they will find water and successfully digs a well, father and young son bond in the splendour of the daylight sun; when the water fails and he has to tap into the scheme supply, Jacob angrily tells David that he cannot come with him into the night.

All is right at the end as the two explore the creek and Jacob cuts some of grandma’s planted minari.

The best scene in Minari comes just before the devastation. Monica tells Jacob their marriage is over. The shots are beautifully handled and the close ups and the sparing dialogue between the couple bear comparison with the best Chinese movies of Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige and the Korean, Ang Lee.

Writer-director Lee Isaac Chung, who grew up on a small farm in rural Arkansas, draws great performances from all concerned, especially Yuh-jung Yuhn’s grandma.

Deserving film but I’m afraid the critic who said Minari would be in viewers’ minds for years to come only got it half right where I’m concerned. My only enduring memory will be getting up to go to the lavatory rather than watch any more bad luck befall Jacob and his family.

Score: 3

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