There was a controversy in December when the Golden Globes announced Minari would not be eligible for its Best Picture awards because the film is mostly in Korean, which means it could only compete for Best Foreign Language Film. This is a movie from an American filmmaker, financed by American companies, and taking place in the U.S. It’s also worth remembering the United States has no official language.
And more than that, you’re not going to get a much more “American” movie than Minari. It’s a semi-autobiographical story from director Lee Isaac Chung about a family of Korean immigrants who move to rural Arkansas in the 1980s because the father, Jacob, dreams of starting a farm. As the film opens, we arrive with the family in the place they’re going to live, a trailer in a large field. And we spend much of the film here, with detours into the closest town, as our family tries to adjust to the new life.
Of course, none of this is easy—Jacob struggles to maintain his crops and his wife Monica desperately wants to return to California. The two make what little money they can by sexing chickens at a poultry farm while caring for their young children, eventually bringing Monica’s mother from Korea to help watch the kids. She brings along her own dynamic, and a few other things, too.
Chung’s work is gorgeous, but even more extraordinary is the performance by the entire cast, which may be the best ensemble performance in a year filled with great ensembles. This family is as believable and real as any I’ve seen, and even the peripheral characters show how surprising people can be, especially the evangelical man Jacob hires to help start the farm, played by Will Patton in one of a number of performances that could have been cartoonish if the cast and Chung didn’t care about the characters so much.
Minari is the kind of movie that reminds you of the people who make this country good, of the dreams of people who are looking for something better, and that planting those seeds now can pay off in unexpected ways.
Minari is available online through the Tallgrass Film Association from February 12-15, and presented in-person by mama.film at the Starlite Drive-In on February 27 and at the mama.film microcinema at The Lux on February 27 and 28.