Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

"The idea of a younger family member gradually forming a connection with an older one is a constant in cinema but it has a purity here that is shorn of unnecessary sentiment." | Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

The warmth of autobiography walks hand in hand with gentle cautionary observations on the nature of "the American dream" in Lee Isaac Chung's film based on his own childhood experiences in rural Arkansas. It's the place where seven-year-old David (Alan S Kim) arrives with his sister Anne (Noel Cho), mum Monica (Yeri Han) along with Dad Jacob (Steven Yeun), whose enterprising idea this is. After years sexing chickens in California, Jacob sees this as an opportunity to own some land of his own and build a 'better', farming life for his family.

"Don't run, David," is the mantra the seven-year-old has permanently ringing in his ears, forced to mute his natural energy because of a heart murmur that his mum ensures he prays about each night - an energy that recalls the sort of junior juice that hops and skips through a Hirokazu Kore-eda film. And, from the off, the gloss is removed from Jacob's dream, with the house less than welcoming and water for his crops not immediately evident. Jacob and Monica have already proved their resilience and self-sufficiency by uprooting their life in Korean to move to the States and we also see there's an edge of stubborness to that in Jacob, as he insists, "Never pay for anything you can find for free", an attitude that could come back to bite him.

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Chung's film opens like an embrace to viewers with the arrival of Monica's mother Soonja (Yuh-jung Young), from Korea, bringing with her recipe ingredients, to the delight of her daughter, and strangeness to the initial dislike of her grandson. "Grandma smells like Korea," he says, and that's not all, she also brings an evil looking drink that's supposed to help his heart and which replaces his beloved Mountain Dew - although he will ultimately have his revenge for that. The idea of a younger family member gradually forming a connection with an older one is a constant in cinema but it has a purity here that is shorn of unnecessary sentiment as David and his gran bond over cards and go walking in the woods, where she tells him about the "beautiful Minari" of the film's title - a type of water celery that can thrive in unexpected places, although Chung wisely avoids leaning into that metaphor.

Chung presents the family microcosm through details, while also offering up a broader glimpse of immigrant experience through their interactions with others in the community, particularly the good-hearted but decidedly eccentric Paul (Will Patton, pitching his character in the sweet spot between believability and over-the top), who helps out on the homestead but is also happy to indulge in a spot of full-size crucifix carrying and exorcism when the mind takes him. The writer/director has a good eye for the humour and everyday drama of family dynamics, including the way anger can flare up and be diffused.

The relationships at the heart of the film are so winning  - and winningly played by all concerned, particularly young Kim, who could hold masterclasses in 'killer glances' - that a succession of incidents towards the end does feel like a bit of a pile-up. This may well be because the story is rooted in real life, where lots of things can happen at once, but the unfussy but familiar emotions presented would happily sing out without these additional dramatic drivers.

Reviewed on: 06 Jan 2021
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David, a seven-year-old Korean-American boy, gets his life turned upside down when his father decides to move their family to rural Arkansas and start a farm in the mid-1980s, in this charming and unexpected take on the American Dream.
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Director: Lee Isaac Chung

Writer: Lee Isaac Chung

Starring: Steven Yeun, Han Yeri, Youn Yuh Jung, Will Patton, Alan Kim, Noel Kate Cho

Year: 2020

Runtime: 115 minutes

Country: US

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