With hate-crimes against Asians at a high, specifically due to the ongoing virus pandemic, it’s something of a balm for the senses to alight upon Lee Issac Chung’s Minari, a wholesome, home-spun, all American tale of racial assimilation which should warm the cockles of all those who see it. A sunny recollection of an 80’s childhood, and specifically a love story between a boy and his aging grandmother, Minari is a feel-good movie with heart, and one that gets a positive uptick despite some flaws.
With Brad Pitt’s imprint Plan B on production detail, and A24 helping to get the product to an audience, Minari would have been a sizable word-of-mouth hit if cinemas were open; the gentle feel of this story of settling in the Ozarks has a big, sweeping feel that belies the slightness of the story. Steven Yeun plays Jacob Yi, the head of a family hoping to make a living off the land; Jacob’s zeal recalls Close Encounters and Field of Dreams, other movies in which a patriarch’s blind enthusiasm turns up trumps. Jacob and his wife Monica (Han Ye-Ri) have some issues, so her mother Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-Jung) is sent for, but proves something tricky for the kids to handle. Little rascal David (Alan Kim) accuses her of not being a real grandmother because she doesn’t bake cookies for them, but Soon-Ja proves to be every bit the guiding, strengthening influences required, coaxing him out of regression caused by fears about a hole in his heart.
Chung isn’t above contriving medical emergencies or a house-fire as a way of adding melodrama; even down to its flowery title, Minari feels like the best film of 1927. Details about the family’s hard-scrabble life as chicken-sexers are very much in tune with 2021’s miserablist Oscars (Nomadland), and it’s brutally cutting when David bluntly responds to his father ‘we had nothing’ when asked about their previous life. But it’s also charming seeing how the family endorse the ’mountain water’ that they all love, but can’t quite admit is an off-the shelf soft-drink.
Such moments find a shared sweet-spot with audiences worldwide; Minari may be small fry, but it’s the kind of slight, persuasive work that suggests that when it comes to surviving, we’re all in this together. One may carp, however, at how American this story is; the Oscars increasingly seem to endorse the films of any race as long as they worship an idealised, sanitised notion of what America might stand for.
Thanks to Curzon for streaming access to this title.
Minari is out April 2nd in the UK.