“Minari” is a near classic of the timeworn “troubles on the farm” drama, a story of a family of non-farmers facing the whims of nature and the widening fracture in a marriage as they set out to work the land and grab The American Dream.
It’s “Country” or “The Southerner” or “Jean de Fleurette” but with Korean immigrants tested this time, a family whose problems arrive with them when they got their 50 acres of Arkansas in the mid-1980s.
Delicately acted by leads Yeri Han and Steven Yuen and vividly-detailed, it covers familiar ground for the genre, with the odd moment of novelty here and there, much of that coming from the locals they interact with.
The fissures are there the day we meet them, rolling up in a station wagon and moving truck onto a piece of land with a double-wide on it in rural Rogers, Arkansas.
Jacob (Yuen, of “Okja” and “The Walking Dead”) wants to show Monica (Han of “Worst Woman”) “the best soil in America.” She’d like a word (in Korean, with subtitles, and in English) about this “house.”
“It has…wheels.” As the kids adapt and unpack, Mom is quick to say “We’re not saying long.”
Whatever their history — California was their previous stop — this latest move is not one she’s on board with, hissing at his “Garden of Eden” description of the 50 acres he’s dreamed of owning.
They’ve been hired as chicken sexers at a local hatchery, because Jacob is “one of the fastest” at this — picking up chicks and determining their gender with a quick glance — that anybody has ever seen. Lots of first generation Korean-Americans will be their co-workers.
The work is drudgery itself, and towering over the building is a chimney, smoking like a crematorium. Male chicks are “disposed of” they tell their kids.
But Dad dreams of lifting them out of this labor. He will farm a huge truck garden on their land and raise vegetables. His “better mousetrap idea?” They’ll be Korean vegetables which he’ll sell to burgeoning Korean markets servicing the growing Korean immigrant communities in nearby large cities.
But first, he’s got to find water. The land has “history,” something a slightly-crazed neighbor (Will Patton) reminds them. They should get it exorcised. Jacob should probably hire a douser, the locals figure. But he’s quick to dismiss all that as primitive “nonsense.”
“Korean people use our minds,” he tells his doted-on little boy, David (Alan S. Kim) . “Never pay for anything you can find for free.”
Foreboding and foreshadowing are one in the same in this story, from the creepy crematorium to the first night they experience the difference between a “tornado watch” and “tornado warning.” Monica frets constantly about how far away the nearest hospital is, because David is doted-on for more than just being a prized son. He’s sickly.
And Jacob is awfully quick to dismiss the idea that they’ll need babysitting for David and tweenage Anne (Noel Cho).
“There’s no one around. What could happen?”
Monica semi-silently fumes at the myriad risks they’re piling into this life inside a tornado magnet and fire trap, with a weak child who needs surgery and jobs that hold no future.
Maybe church will help, although Jacob’s not keen on that, either. Maybe the arrival of Monica’s Mom (Yuon Yuh-jong) will improve Monica’s mood and improve their odds.
One pleasant surprise of “Minari” is the tactless but warm embrace of the locals. Patton’s neighbor (and farm help) Paul embodies that with his “The minute I saw you, I knew we were going to be friends.” His eccentricity may stand out, but from the banker who buys into their business plan to the church that welcomes them with applause, Chung ensures that his film reminds us of America’s long history of welcoming immigrants.
But just as much care is put into the multiplying perils facing the family. David is quick to dislike his new “not a real grandmother,” and Monica makes no effort to hide “I’m sorry you have to show you our lives now” pain at being here. She visibly winces when little David gushes at the land, the creek and woods with “I’m going to live here until the day I die!”
That’s what she’s worried about.
The title is the name of a Korean vegetable, one that “grows like weeds,” and it’s meant to be a metaphor. Because when the dream cracks, bends and breaks, when the water dries up and crises pile up, remembering weeds survive where hearty plants fail is a straw worth clinging to.
Chung (“Lucky Life”), filming a tale both familiar and alien and a story not far removed from his own childhood, has made a breakout film of brittle tenderness, heart and hope — one that we hope makes him a filmmaker to watch from here on out.
MPA Rating: PG-13 for some thematic elements and a rude gesture
Cast: Steven Yeun, Yeri Han, Alan S. Kim, Youn Yuh-jung, Noel Cho and Will Patton
Credits: Scripted and directed by Lee Isaac Chung. An A24 release.
Running time: 1:55