Crop irrigation and the fine art of chick sexing might not sound like promising cinematic ingredients. But in the hands of writer/director Lee Isaac Chung, these prosaic rituals become part of something quite magical.
Minari is his semi-autobiographical story of a Korean-American family attempting to become farmers in rural Arkansas in the 1980s. We join them as they roll up to their new home: a battered trailer in a remote, scraggly-looking field. Dad Jacob (Steven Yeun) practically vibrates with enthusiasm over “the best dirt in America”; the brittle body language of mum Monica (Yeri Han) tells you all you need to know about her feelings. Their two young kids Anne (Noel Cho) and David (Alan S Kim) simply see a huge mucky playground.
It’s a fresh start but a precarious one. After years in California spent gazing at chicks’ backsides to determine whether they were male or female, the couple saved up a decent nest egg. Now the plan is for Jacob to raise vegetables on their expansive plot despite knowing nothing about farming (poor Monica has to stick to sexing chicks). For young David, who has a heart condition, living so far from a hospital also seems risky.
As childcare becomes a pressing issue, the arrival of Monica’s mum Soon-ja (Yuh-jung Youn) from Korea further stirs the pot. David suddenly has to share his cramped room with this mysterious, cackling pensioner who seems far removed from his idea of a stereotypical American grandma. Slowly the mismatched pair develop a cultural exchange: he introduces her to sugary but addictive Mountain Dew while she teaches him cards and some colourful curses.
The family mostly speak in Korean but their interactions – and underlying tensions – seem so universal and familiar that the subtitles practically melt away. It is impossible not to become invested in their struggle to make things work.