Oscar-nominated drama Minari unearths moments of life-affirming joy and despair

A Korean American family relocates to rural Arkansas in writer-director Lee Isaac Chung's Oscar-nominated drama Minari. Damon Smith reviews

Minari: Steven Yeun as Jacob Yi, Alan S Kim as David Yi, Youn Yuh-jung as Soon-ja, Yeri Han as Monica Yi and Noel Cho as Anne Yi
Damon Smith

MINARI (12A, 116 mins) Drama/Romance. Steven Yeun, Yeri Han, Youn Yuh-jung, Alan S Kim, Noel Cho, Will Patton. Director: Lee Isaac Chung.

Released: April 2 (streaming on all major platforms) and screening at drive-in cinemas from April 12 and cinemas nationwide from May 12

Rating: 4stars

WRITER-director Lee Isaac Chung plunders memories of his childhood in the shadow of the Ozark Mountains in an autobiographical love letter to family ties and intergenerational conflict.

Glimpsed through the eyes of a Korean American couple, who relocate their brood to 1980s Arkansas, Minari charms and delights without flashiness, relying on naturalistic performances from a powerhouse ensemble cast and the untouched beauty of the Bible Belt to cast a heady spell.

Taking its title from the luscious water cress which flourishes in Korea, Chung's beautifully calibrated character study balances moments of regret with earthy humour including an impish boy serving an elderly relative a fragrant brew they won't forget.

Eight-year-old Alan S Kim's performance as the mischievous tyke is a source of endless delight and is a glowing testament to writer-director Chung's ability to tease out authenticity from the youngest member of cast without trading too heavily on winsomeness.

Supporting Actress Oscar nominee Youn Yuh-jung is a lip-smacking delight as the potty-mouthed grandmother with scant regard for social niceties, who shatters the peace with the cool disregard of a wrecking ball.

In the rubble, Minari unearths moments of life-affirming joy and despair from a gifted filmmaker's heart.

Korean immigrant Jacob Yi (Steven Yeun) transplants his wife Monica (Yeri Han) and their two children Anne (Noel Cho) and David (Kim) from California to Arkansas.

"This is the best dirt in America," coos David, allowing the earth to tumble through his fingers as he admires 50 acres of untouched wilderness.

Monica is unimpressed: their new home is an hour from the nearest hospital, where David is undergoing treatment for a heart condition. "If this is the start you wanted, maybe there's no chance for us," she rues.

The despondent wife invites her cantankerous mother (Yuh-jung) to travel from South Korea to the family plot. The elderly matriarch arrives bearing chilli powder and anchovies but no sympathy for her little nephew's night-time bed-wetting ("Ding dong broken!") or her daughter's softly-softly approach to parenting.

Meanwhile, David enlists God-fearing neighbour and Korean War veteran Paul (Will Patton) to grow fruit and vegetables to sell in nearby Dallas.

Minari balances sweetness and spice like expertly made kimchi to a recipe of heartfelt emotion in Chung's simple yet effective script.

Yeun's moving embodiment of a proud father desperate to provide for his children ("They need to see me succeed at something for once") gels magnificently with Han's increasingly disillusioned wife.

Misfortune and tests of religious faith punctuate a bittersweet family album, which quietly champions the pursuit of one American dream that doesn't mean sacrificing cherished traditions.

Harmony can blossom in the divide between competing cultures and Chung skilfully harvests an entertaining and enthralling crop.

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