I first heard about the Oscar-winning Minari when I saw the listing for extras when it was filmed in the Tulsa area during the summer of 2019. I even applied to a few listings but wasn’t called back.
The movie stars Steven Yeun of The Walking Dead fame in a far different role as Jacob Yi, a Korean immigrant trying to raise his family on a farm in the Ozark region of Arkansas in 1983. His goal is to be a dirt farmer growing foods that are liked by Koreans so he can sell to immigrants and Korean grocers so they won’t have to deal with farmers farther away. Immediately, his wife, Monica (Han Ye-ri) doesn’t like that they’re living in a mobile home out on the middle of nowhere and they argue.
Jacob and Monica work sexing baby chicks at a nearby hatchery but when problems arise concerning young David (Alan Kim) who has a heart conditions, they arrange for Monica’s mother, Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jing) to come live, but she’s going to have to sleep in David’s bedroom. Immediately he doesn’t like her. And Soon-ja isn’t the typical Asian grandmother one might expect. As a matter of fact, she doesn’t even come across as a grandmother to David nor his sister, Anne (Noel Kate Cho). At one part, David urinates in her cup which she drinks. This leads to Jacob almost whipping David with a stick, but Soon-ja stops him.
Eventually, David and Soon-ja bond as they plant minari seeds down near a river stream away from the mobile home. But the strain on the marriage between Jacob and Monica grows as she sees him spending money they raised in California on a farm that will go to waste. Monica wants to move back to California, but Jacob feels he can do better in Arkansas and doesn’t want to leave.
They attend a local church where David makes a friend with a young boy, Johnnie (Jacob Wade), who is confused about David’s appearance as he’s never seen Koreans before. The church people welcome the Yis, but there’s some concerns about Jacob’s helper, Paul (Will Patton), who appears almost destitute and is very religious to the point he speaks in tongue. Paul was a veteran of the Korean War.
The movie is well shot and the performances by Yeun and Yuh-jing (who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar) keep the movie afloat. The only problem is that Monica just seems to nag more and more up until the movie’s ending where she tells Jacob she’s leaving. And Anne eventually becomes pointless through the second half of the movie only to function in a scene where Soon-ja suffers a stroke and David turns to her because Jacob and Monica are at the hatchery working.
The movie reminds me of a Terrence Malick movie and that’s both it’s good side and bad side. It’s far better made than Malick, but there are a lot of scenes that pop up on screen without any explanation. Writer-director Lee Isaac Chung said this is semi-autobiographical, but I never knew which eye it wants to be shown through, David’s or Jacob’s. Also, having Soon-ja suffer a stroke seems to be cliched. And the last third or fourth of this movie just falls apart with a deus ex machina that we’ve seen in other movies where filmmakers don’t know how to end movies differently.
I feel like the Will Patton character should’ve been explained more. He just seems to appear and disappear whenever the movie needs him. Thankfully, Chung doesn’t resort to other tropes of white people in white savior movie where there’s an outrageous white racist person, but you can sense there is a little bit of tension between the Yis and the white people of Arkansas.
Minari was distributed by A24 which is all you really need to know. It seems more artsy than it should. Chung should’ve just shot this straight forward. For a movie with a small budget shot fast in the Oklahoma heat, it does come off convincing that it’s set in the early 1980s. You understand why Jacob is wanting to accomplish, but Monica never becomes more than a one-dimensional character that you’ve seen countless times before.
I think a lot of people have echoed my same comments. It’s worth a watch once. But I honestly can’t bring myself to want to watch it a second time. It’s one of those movies that’s well made. It’s just not able to enjoy well.