MINARI

Producers: Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner and Christina Oh   Director: Lee Isaac Chung   Screenplay: Lee Isaac Chung   Cast: Steven Yeun, Yeri Han, Yuh-Jung Yuon, Alan S. Kim, Will Patton, Noel Kate Cho, Darryl Cox, Scott Haze and Esther Moon   Distributor: A24 Films

Grade: B+

The immigrant experience in America is at once universal and varied, and it gets an unusual twist in Lee Isaac Chung’s semi-autobiographical film, set in the 1980s, which follows what the Yis, a Korean-American family from California, contend with after moving to rural Arkansas.  Titled after a vegetable that’s thought to have medicinal properties in East Asia, the picture is clearly a means for the writer-director to deal with his own memories of childhood.  And despite the fact that the movie includes some fraught moments, it will also serve as a soothing balm for audiences.

Steven Yeun plays Jacob, modeled after Chung’s father.  After years working, along with his wife Monica (Yeri Han), in West coast poultry plants as “chicken-sexers,” separating the female chicks preserved for eggs and meat from males, which are discarded, Jacob uses the family savings to purchase a fifty-acre plot of land in rural Arkansas.  His plan is for him and Monica to work in a nearby chicken-processing plant while he turns his modest acreage into a small farm, where he will grow Korean vegetables and take them to Dallas for sale to distributors.

Monica is appalled when she, Jacob and their two children, Anne (Noel Kate Cho) and David (Alan S. Kim), arrive: their home is a big old trailer on cinder blocks in the middle of the field.  But she goes along with her husband’s dream, though she’s not about to keep quiet about her misgivings.  The couple’s problems are exacerbated by the fact that David suffers from a heart problem that requires regular medical observation and limits the amount of physical activity he can indulge in.

There’s also the inconvenient fact that Jacob’s effort to get his “garden” going on his own proves impossible.  He needs an extra pair of hands, and finds help from a most unlikely source—a fellow named Paul (Will Patton), a scruffy Christian fundamentalist who can be found every Sunday morning lugging a large wooden cross, Calvary-style, down the road, and occasionally begins speaking in tongues.  But he’s a helpful soul.  And though the kids get some weird questions from kids in town, the locals are, by and large, a friendly bunch.

But Monica is increasingly unhappy, so Jacob arranges for her mother Soon-ja (Yuh-Jung Yuon) to come live with them.  She’s nothing like the grandmotherly type David expected, having the personality of a naughty child, and the boy loathes the herbal concoction she makes for him.  (He gets back at her in a particularly nasty way, using her newfound liking of Mountain Dew.)  But because they have to share a room, they gradually grow closer, so that when she falls ill, it’s not easy for him.

Soon-ja is also the person who plants minari on the bank of a nearby creek, where it grows abundantly.  The same can’t be said of Jacob’s crops, which are first endangered when the irrigation supply he’s constructed fails, and later by an accidental fire.  The Dallas distribution link also falls through.

Such setbacks, of course, are inevitable in a story of this sort.  But their seriousness is mitigated by Chung’s style, which avoids heavy-handedness, and by some good news to balance the bad.  In the end, “Minari” is a feel-good film, though it’s rather abrupt in reaching that point, gliding over some lingering questions about how continuing difficulties will be overcome.

The cast, however, is a thoroughly winning one.  Yeun and Han are excellent as the parents, showing the stress their characters are feeling while never allowing the acrimony between them to become too raw.  Patton brings warmth to Paul, a figure who in lesser hands might well have become a focus of condescension and ridicule, while Cho brings an appealing spunkiness to Anne.

But the scene-stealers are undoubtedly Kim, whose charm carries all before it, and Yuon, whose cackling energy makes grandma a true character; she also earns the tears that some will shed when the old lady’s health fails. 

There’s also a lovely simplicity to the movie’s technical side. Lachlan Milne’s cinematography doesn’t aim for gloss, but nonetheless gives the setting a glow, and the production design by Yong Ok Lee and costumes by Susanna Song are just realistic enough. Harry Yoon’s editing is at times a bit choppy, but that adds to the naturalistic feel, while Emile Mosseri’s score avoids treacle. 

“Minari” is a gentle fable of assimilation that is bound to be a crowd-pleaser, if the crowd will come out to see it.