Minari ★★★★

"Grandma picked a good spot."

Steven Yeun I guess is still burning.

One of the most anticipated movies of the year -- last year, I guess? -- finally has its limited theatre run, and this vaccinated son of a bitch made the drive to see it. Also, I passed by several chicken farms. Delaware, home of the Fightin' Blue Hens! And millions of male chicks incinerated to their deaths for your nuggets.

Charming, gentle, heartwarming, and powerful, Lee Isaac Chung's Minari proves you don't need the English language to make the quintessential American family drama. More than that, though, it's the million little beautiful touches to this stunning film that will draw you in and captivate you, and why stories mostly through the eyes of a child can still amaze and transcend the nostalgia that one of a lesser script would elicit. A classic immigrant story is so so much more than the sum of its parts, one of pain and triumph, and struggle and promise.

The Yi family has moved to the heartland for their slice of the American Dream in the 1980s, and Arkansas is where Jacob (Steven Yeun) has planted his family in hopes of starting a farm to grow Korean produce. Wife Monica (Han Ye-ri) isn't as hopeful as Jacob, thinking that uprooting the family -- especially with their young son David's (Alan Kim) heart condition -- is risky, and seeing the isolated trailer home hardly any kind of "dream." Digging a well with the help of local man Paul (Will Patton) is one of the first steps to independence, but the grueling repetitive work of sexing chicks at a factory for the married couple is not ideal.

To watch David and his sister Anne (Noel Kate Cho), Monica arranges for her mother Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung) to come from Korea. Initially David is resistant to this nontraditional grandma, but learns to love the freedom she grants him. Jacob struggles to keep the water running, and Monica can see it wearing on him. She may want to go back to California.

It's lovely to see universal stories of family drama that cast actors that aren't White, and thank goodness that this semi-autobiographical script from Chung matches the excellent ensemble. Though perhaps inserting a few too many comic moments and silly humour -- go ahead and start a "movies where someone drinks pee" list -- keeping Minari mostly but not always through a seven-year-old's eyes is a good choice, but unfortunately that does take away from the real star of the film.

And that's not Yeun, who's reliably great, but actress Han Ye-ri, who deserves all the accolades in the world for this tremendous work. Bringing a nuanced performance to the "Korean mother" role, you can see the range of emotions that run far deeper than other characters we've seen of her type. She's really the one in whom we can build sympathy, and even late in the film when it's easy to cast her as Debbie Downer, if you add up all the moments spoken and unspoken -- including what the couple went through moving from South Korea, and starting over yet again halfway across America -- she's the most complex person and the biggest challenge for an actor, matching resentment with resilience.

It's not the masterpiece I anticipated -- hey, every Korean-language Oscar hopeful can't be five stars -- but Minari is a crowd-pleaser with heartfelt depth and love. If anything, it'll get more people to stop eating chicken. All those dead chicks are furry pools of blood on your hands.

Friend who wrote a better review than me: CatherineShort.

Added to The Narrative Films of 2020, ranked.
Added to 2021 Independent Spirit Awards nominees, ranked.
Added to 2021 Academy Awards nominees, ranked.

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