The title "Minari" refers to an herbal plant originating from East Asia, with scientific name Oenanthe javanica, commonly known by a variety of names, like Chinese celery, Japanese parsley, or Korean minari. It is plant that is easy to raise, because when you harvest the leaves to use in cooking, they grow back out again. This hardy vegetable is the metaphor Korean-American writer-director Lee Isaac Chung used to tell his own personal story on film.
in the 1980s, Jacob (Steven Yeun) and Monica (Yeri Han) Yi were a immigrant couple from Korea. They first settled in California where they worked classifying chicks by sex at a hatchery. They had two children, pre-teen Anne (Noel Kate Cho) and spirited tyke David (Alan Kim). But Jacob had a bigger American dream in mind, so he upped and moved his family to an old trailer home in an empty field in Arkansas start a farm of their own from scratch.
Monica missed the city life, and was concerned about how far their farm was from any hospital, a concern since little David had a heart condition. One day, they welcomed Monica's mother Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung) in from Korea to live with them to help around the house. Forced to share a room, David did not think that Soon-ja, with her impish demeanor and sharp tongue, was not behaving like a typical grandmother should.
From there, a tale of resilience and adaptation by the Yi family was told both from the homefront and from the community around them. Jacob reluctantly accepted help at the farm from an eccentric old man Paul (Will Patton), who had some unusual tics and religious beliefs, but was very handy on the field. They attended a Christian church nearby and gained some new friends. However, challenges continue to hound the family that forced tough decisions.
A major charm of this film was the relationship between Soon-ja and David. Things started out with a lot of resistance of little boy about this old woman who smelled like Korea. At first, David would correct her broken English ("I am not pretty, I am good-looking!") or pull some naughty pranks on her (like replacing her tea with something nasty). But later, grandmother eventually won her grandchild over when they bonded while planting minari near a water hole.
The pace is slow and there is a lot of talking (in Korean, so you need to read the subtitles), so this film will not be for everyone. The experience of the Yi family trying to make it in America had definitely not been a bed of roses, every small gain it seems would meet head-on with adversity.
However, once you get into the Chung's frame of mind and immerse into Jacob's fighting spirit and determination to succeed, then this film will also win your heart.
This review was originally published in the author's blog, "Fred Said."