For many striving immigrants nothing says “promised land” like land itself. The ambition to own his own farm motivates a Korean immigrant to uproot his wife and American-born children from California to Arkansas. Unfortunately, he might just know enough about farming to fall too deeply in debt in Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari, a widely acknowledged Oscar contender, which releases this Friday in actual theaters.
Even by California’s high standards, Jacob is great at chick sexing. That is the process of quickly determining the gender of newborn chicks, so the males can be “disposed of.” His wife Monica is only adequate by Arkansas standards, but her husband does not intend for them to work in the poultry plant for long. In addition to their new mobile home on blocks, he bought a modest stretch of farmland to raise crops. Although he was initially considering traditional Midwest staples, he soon shifts his plan to cultivate Korean vegetables for the Korean groceries springing up in the Southern Midwest in the early 1980s.
Jacob has a profound desire to build something of his own. Monica would prefer to simply work hard, avoid taking risks, and save their money for their children (and the Church). The resulting disagreement grows increasingly pronounced when Jacob’s efforts are repeatedly plagued by bad luck. It gets so bad, Paul, their Evangelical farm hand and new family friend, convinces them to allow him to perform an exorcism. Seven-year-old David is mostly oblivious to the tension between his parents, but his sister Anne is just old enough to pick up on it. However, day-to-day, they are more concerned with negotiating the prickly foibles of Soonja, the grandmother they never met, until she arrived to help take care of them in Arkansas. It is she who has the foresight to plant a small patch of minari, the spicy Korean herb that grows best under wild conditions.
Minari is a deeply touching film that is truly inclusive. While obviously an immigrant’s film, it is also sympathetic to the poor, white Ozark community in which Jacob’s family finds itself. Paul, played with deep humanity and humility by Will Paton (who really ought to be in the Oscar talk as well) is never caricatured or demonized for his extreme expressions of his faith (he literally carries a wooden cross on his back every Sunday). Instead, he is presented as a devout believer, who does his best to live up to the principles of Christianity.
On the other hand, the Oscar buzz for Youn Yuh-jung is well-placed, totally deserved, and arguably overdue. Anyone who follows Korean film will recognize her from her surprisingly edgy work in films like Bacchus Lady and The Housemaid. Once again, she steals scene after scene as the no-nonsense but loving grandmother.
Burning is the film he really should have been nominated for. He is perfectly cast, but as Monica, the quietly devastating Yeri Han is an even greater center of emotional gravity. Of course, Alan S. Kim has been charming viewers since Minari’s Sundance premiere with his earnest and completely natural turn as young David, but Noel Cho deserves more attention for her great work as the smart and keenly sensitive Anne.
Minari is definitely an immigrant story and a film about family and community, all of which are bound up together in their desire for a better life. This is obviously a much more personal story for Chung, whose previous films were an eclectic a somewhat inconsistent lot, such as Abigail Harm. With Minari, he speaks to a much wider audience, transporting them to the fertile Arkansas soil. It is a beautiful film, in a very earthy way. Highly recommended, Minari opens this Friday (2/12) in theaters and should remain squarely in the mix for awards consideration.