Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
The Northwest Film Forum has a revenue-sharing way to see Minari, which “opens” there today, Friday, February 12.
It’s a semi-autobiographical film, inspired by writer-director Lee Isaac Chung’s experience growing up in a Korean-American family on an Arkansas farm in the 1980s. That accounts for the pungency of the accumulated details, which are both specific (a visitor from Korea brings bagfuls of Asian spices) and universal (kids sneak a pinch of chewing tobacco during a sleepover). Minari is at its best in this accumulation, even if the collection of details only occasionally grows into something really resonant.
The farm is being settled by Jacob (Steven Yeun) and Monica (Yeri Han), who have staked everything on this venture after years of saving money (their previous, grueling work—Monica’s current work, too—was “sexing chickens,” separating baby chicks by gender). They have two children growing up as Americans, a girl called Anne (Noel Kate Cho) and a younger boy, David (Alan S. Kim), who has a heart condition. Monica is skeptical about the farm, and does not hesitate to let this be known (Han’s performance—the best in the movie—is splendidly direct when it comes to generating a longstanding air of grievance).
The family is soon joined by Monica’s mother (Yuh-Jung Youn), who helps tend the kids. Her entrance into the house—hair askew, gait unsteady, toting unwanted gifties for the children—is just right. The only other sizable role is an evangelical neighbor who works on Jacob’s farm, and who is occasionally seen walking a country road pulling a wooden cross behind him. He’s played by Will Patton, and if you always suspected Will Patton was about to start speaking in tongues at any given moment, he fulfills those expectations here.
The degree to which Grandma is a scene-stealer is part of a larger weakness in the film; it’s pretty old-fashioned when it comes to the business of setting up cute jokes and then paying them off a scene or two later. The other main stumbling block is Chung’s fondness for symbolic images, whether it’s a handy snake at a nearby creek or the crematorium at the chicken hatchery (where unwanted discards go to die). When Grandma plants her quiet but hardy minari, an herb that can take root even in its non-native environment, you may feel the nudge of the author between your shoulder blades.
Elsewhere, though, Chung demonstrates a commendable willingness to let expectations be disappointed. That chewing tobacco, for instance, feels set up to provide the inevitable punchline involving a midnight barf-o-rama during the sleepover; but no, it just exists as a little detail. A deck of cards, another gift from Grandma, provides a humble device that requires no huge payoff. The snake never bites anyone. And more intriguingly, the movie is mostly bereft of the depictions of racism we might expect in a story like this. Some of the white folks are weird, and a couple of them racist, but racism is not the point of this story, and the family has more pressing problems to worry about—the availability of water, for instance, and the durability of marriage.
Minari delves into these problems with modesty, admirable enough if perhaps underwhelming in the end. Its approach seems literary more than cinematic, which may be why I’m resisting its charms a little bit. I will confess I’m also puzzled by the movie’s success with year-end awards-givers in comparison to, say, First Cow, admittedly my favorite film of 2021. Minari bagged six nominations in the Independent Spirit Awards, and 10 nominations in the Critics Choice Awards; First Cow got three and two noms from those groups, respectively. Both films are quiet, but First Cow seems to me expansively and excitingly cinematic, despite its apparent modesty, while Minari remains a very nice tale. “Very nice” isn’t bad, of course, despite my reservations.
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.