Small Screen Berkeley: ‘Minari’ is something truly special

Minari is one of 2021’s best releases.

‘Minari’. Photo courtesy A24

After watching Minari (currently screening at Rialto Cinemas Elmwood and the Virtual Roxie), I felt compelled to look it up on the internet – minari, that is, not the film that’s borrowed its name. Though writer-director Lee Isaac Chung’s feature clearly identifies minari as a leafy green, I needed to know more.

Luckily, Slate – in response to Minari‘s release – recently published a thorough article about the vegetable explaining that it’s “long-stemmed with fronds that look similar to American parsley…(and) has a delicate flavor with a grassy, peppery aftertaste.”

Minari, on the other hand, didn’t leave me with a peppery aftertaste: instead, it left me feeling warm with the satisfaction of having seen something truly special. Chung’s film – based on his childhood experiences growing up in the rural south – really couldn’t be better. Is it a great film? Damn close.

Korean immigrant couple Jacob and Monica Yi have left California’s high-stress chicken sexing business for Arkansas’ more relaxed equivalent – as well as a chance for Jacob (Stephen Yeun) to live out his dream of owning and farming his own land. Monica (Yeri Han) isn’t terribly happy about the move, but doesn’t have much choice in the matter: it’s the 1970’s, and husbands are still making the big decisions.

6-year old David (adorable Alan S. Kim) and elder sister Anne (Noel Cho) also didn’t get a vote, but being children they’re relatively adaptable and aren’t put off by the dilapidated prefab-on-cinderblocks they now call home. On the other hand, David is distinctly unimpressed by his maternal grandmother (Yuh-jung Youn), who joins them a little later: unlike real grandmas, this one swears like a trooper, wears men’s underwear, and – worst of all – doesn’t bake cookies.

She does, however, plant a bed of minari along the banks of a nearby creek. There’s no Korean food available in Arkansas – the family has to drive to Dallas or Oklahoma City if they want to find some – and though the minari will take months to grow, eventually the family will have a taste of the old country.

Like its vegetable namesake, Minari takes its time to develop, ambling along at a relaxed pace, providing intimate glimpses into the family’s lives, and introducing us to the welcoming but (at least to the Yi’s) rather odd locals. Jacob hires Korean War vet Paul (Will Patton) to help him plant his crops, and though Paul does good work he also speaks in tongues, administers amateur exorcisms, and hauls a giant cross along the country lanes every Sunday.

Chung’s screenplay avoids the overheated developments that frequently spoil Hollywood dramas, but it’s his uniformly magnificent cast that renders Minari several cuts above the ordinary, with especial kudos to Yeun for shaking off the ghosts of ‘The Walking Dead.’ One of the best things in that frequently dreadful but addictive series – which he wisely walked away from in 2016, just prior to its jumping the shark moment – Yeun proves here that he can do a lot more than shoot zombies in the head. He’s the cornerstone of what many will consider one of 2021’s best releases.

John Seal has lived in Oakland since 1981 and has been writing for Berkeleyside since 2009. He spends his spare time watching and reading about movies.