Inspired by writer/director Lee Isaac Chung’s childhood as the son of South Korean immigrants in rural Arkansas, “Minari” is a gentle story of a family’s unexpectedly rich harvest. At its center is an enchanting performance by a child actor: little Alan Kim, who plays 7-year-old David Yi with a mixture of real-kid impishness and quiet wonder.
Through David’s eyes, we see a familiar story unfold: A family in search of its own American dream arrives in the Ozarks in the 1980s, with father Jacob (Steven Yeun) seeing hope in the neglected fields of their new property. He and wife Monica (Yeri Han) work in a poultry plant as chicken sexers (a job that’s exactly what it sounds like — “staring at chicken butts all day,” as Jacob says), but Jacob dreams of supporting his family through their own farm, and isn’t afraid of the hard work required.
What’s mesmerizing about “Minari” is not only its rare screen portrayal of a Korean American family, but its refusal to slip into easy pathos. Jacob and Monica fight, so much so that their children — David and older sister Ann (Noel Kate Cho) —— wearily bombard them with paper airplanes labeled “don’t fight.” Monica wants to move back to California, where they were less isolated; as a part of a shouted compromise, Monica’s mother Soonja (Youn Yuh-jung), arrives from Korea to stay. This previously unknown and decidedly uncuddly grandmother is at first a puzzlement for David, but they soon bond over planting the Korean herb minari — a delicacy that Soonja enthuses is “for everyone.”
Over its quiet two hours, beautifully punctuated by long shots of sunlit green fields and fireflies flitting at twilight, “Minari” lets us become part of the Yi family. We come to understand what drew Jacob and Monica together in the first place (back in Korea, when times were hard, they dreamed “we’d go to America and save each other”), why Jacob is determined to finish what he started, how an elderly person’s vacant stare can still reveal their soul, why a little boy runs because sometimes he just must. In creating a filmic love letter to his own family, Chung has crafted one for us all.