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"Minari" Review

 With the Oscars three nights away (and holding zero appeal to me for the first time in my life), it's time to get through the nominees and up next is Minari, one of the two titles I had absolutely never even heard of when the nominations were announced; that's how bad this year's nominations are. 

Nominated for Best Picture, Director, Actor, Supporting Actress, Original Screenplay and Score, it is the story of Korean immigrants who move to rural Arkansas in the early-1980s to start a farm. Father Jacob (Steven Yuen, best known as Glenn from The Walking Dead), mother Monica (Yeri Han), older daughter Anne (Noel Cho), and younger son David (Alan Kim) have moved from California to fulfill Jacob's dream of farming, moving into a ramshackle double-wide trailer on land. To earn a living, the parents work at a local chicken hatchery sexing chickens, which means they sort them by sex (with the males being incinerated, it is implied; so much for male privilege), not whatever weird kinky thing you were imagining.

Monica is clearly unhappy with the move, but Jacob is resolute (read: stubborn) about his dream of growing vegetables to sell to the Korean community in Dallas. He buys a used tractor from Paul (Will Patton), a very religious fellow who spends his Sundays walking the roads toting a huge crucifix on his shoulder and he offers to help on the farm. 

To help care for the children, especially David who has a hole in his heart, they bring over Monica's mother  Soonja (Yuh-jung Youn), a feisty old woman to whom David takes a disliking because she's not like grandmas are supposed to be, not making cookies or coddling the kids. But she gradually wins him over by not cocooning him because of his condition like his mother does. 

The story meanders along from one crisis to the next; the well Jacob digs himself instead of having a water diviner do it run dry, the client he had a deal to sell his crops to reneges at the last moment, and various other incidents stress his marriage to the breaking point. Just as it appears things are finally turning around, something devastating happens which should scotch the entire endeavor, but the movie abruptly ends on an odd note as if the last reel got lopped off, denying the viewer a sense of closure.

Minari is one of those Sundance hits which never would've caught much of a mass audience or acclaim in a normal year, not because it's particularly bad, but because it's simply too small. But in the Year Without Movies where the Academy was indulging its virtue signaling urges, it has been thrust forth and thus gets judged more harshly because it's supposed to be a Best Picture. 

However, it's odd that the Academy would favor it because it lacks many of the woke points that generally animate their picks. When you heard the logline - Korean family moves to Arkansas - didn't you subconsciously fill in "...and they experience racism and hatred from the toothless yokel hillbillies"? Astonishingly, nothing of the sort occurs. They are warmly welcomed by the community and the church they attend. Other than one insensitive question from a young boy to David asking why his face is so flat, their ethnicity barely factors and the kid follows up by asking David if he wants to play; the question was just a kid asking a question without manners, not with malice. 

Even the film's treatment of religion is a departure from the usual "look at those snake-handling Sky Man believers" treatment Christians usually receive. Jacob isn't as religious as Monica and he's put off by Paul's speaking in tongues and casting out of demons, but Paul isn't made the butt of jokes outside of some of the Christian kids flipping him off in an ironic moment. 

My problem with Minari is that it fills nearly two hours with lots of specific details about their lives and events, but omits some rather major backstory details which would've explained why this farm is so important to Jacob. He says he doesn't want to spend the rest of his life looking at chicken butts, but why a farm. The couple emigrated from South Korea, presumably in the late-1960s, but why come to America? There's no mention of their educations or career aspirations; it lacks the "he was a doctor in his old life, but now has to drive a cab in America" angle. We know what Jacob wants to do, but not why. This extends to Paul - he has an affinity for Korean food from serving there in the war, but his odd behavior is never really explicated.

The performances are good with the breakthrough being Yuen, who most people remember last getting his head gruesomely bashed in with a baseball bat on The Walking Dead. Jacob is a quiet man who clearly prioritizes this farm over his family, which makes the lack of understanding why it's so important a bad oversight of the nominated screenplay. (This is a common trait in most of the nominees this year.) However, I wonder if part his nomination is because his fellow actors were surprised Glenn from TWD learned to speak such fluent Korean? The problem with that would be it's because he IS Korean, born in Seoul, living there until he was five when his family moved to Canuckia then suburban Detroit and his family spoke it at home.

Youn is a pip as the salty grandmother to the children, the kind of crown-pleasing performance that usually snags Supporting nominations, though it's distracting how much older she seems than the couple. (She was around 72 when this was filmed; Yuen and Han were mid-30s.) 

Writer-director Lee Issac Chung based Minari on his own childhood and while he makes some beautiful images, it's just too small and personal to allow outsiders in. Anyone wanting an edgy Korean story like last year's Best Picture, Parasite, will be disappointed. While it's not boring, it's slow-going and may lead some to wonder when the story is going to start. At the end, they may wonder, "That's it?" 

Score: 5/10. Catch it on cable.


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