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The two children in Minari, part of a family of Korean immigrants who have just moved to rural Arkansas, love Mountain Dew. They drink it all the time. They call it “mountain water,” as if they have actually been convinced by its marketing that the sugary beverage comes from a magical mountain spring. Inspired by writer-director Lee Isaac Chung’s own childhood, Minari is filled with these kinds of odd and delightful details that help to fill out its sparse story with the compelling stuff of real life.
Jacob (Steven Yeun) and Monica (Han Ye-ri), the children’s parents, arrive in Arkansas in the 1980s with little money and two poorly paying jobs as chicken sexers at a local egg farm. Their new house is a trailer in the middle of a field nowhere near a town. But Jacob has plans. The soil is good, and while his family adjusts to their new surroundings, he works the field, growing Korean vegetables he predicts will be in demand as more immigrants arrive from their homeland. It’s a big gamble but also a profound statement of purpose: Minari envisions a form of adaptation that doesn’t require immigrants to forgo their roots.
While Monica struggles to accept the isolation and Jacob labors on the land, their son David (Alan Kim) follows the adults around, seeing much and saying little, absorbing their hardships. He has a heart murmur, which prevents him from doing much outside of the house, but his life gets some focus when Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung), Monica’s mother, comes to live with them. Staking her claim in the pantheon of great movie grandmas, Soon-ja playfully clashes with young David. He’s repelled by her, perhaps because she is a distillation of everything that makes him and his family different. Nevertheless, their little battles seem to serve them both—and the viewer—well. She makes fun of his bedwetting habit and mocks him in her new language: “Broken ding-dong.” He responds by tricking her into drinking his urine.
Despite the potential for comedic highs and tragic lows, there is something strangely muted about Minari. Chung consistently backgrounds the tension by introducing subplots that go nowhere. David becomes friends with a local boy who presents as a bit of a troublemaker, but their relationship falls off before anything too terrible occurs. Jacob takes on a worker (played memorably by character actor Will Patton) whose bizarre religious eccentricities seem poised to spill over into something more dangerous, but they never do. It all just becomes part of the fabric of their days.
All of Minari’s individual elements get swallowed up by the overwhelming nostalgia summoned by Chung, portraying life as a journey whose happy destination is already known. It’s a testament to the filmmaker to have created such a powerful aesthetic, but it’s hard to shake the urge for Minari to become more dramatic or pointed. Although he’s not in every scene, young David is the film’s unofficial guide, for better and for worse. He’s young enough to believe everything will work out, because so far, everything always has. This perspective is at once powerful, well-realized, and a hindrance to our investment in these characters’ lives.
All those details that Chung seems to have lifted from his own childhood make Minari feel unique and specific, but verisimilitude is no substitute for narrative momentum. Ultimately, it’s a story of life and death that never feels like it’s leading to either one. Minari has strong roots, but it never fully blooms.