A close-knit family of Koreans struggles to realise the American dream in Lee Isaac Chung’s multi-Oscar-nominated drama.


Heads above water: Yeri Han, Steven Yeun, Alan Kim and Noel Kate Cho


In spite of an enviable position on the world stage, South Korean cinema has largely been ignored by the American Academy. It wasn’t until two years ago that the first Korean film was even nominated for a best foreign film Oscar. And a year after Lee Chang-dong’s Burning won that distinction, Parasite came along like a gong-grabbing express train, snapping up four Oscars, for best picture, director, screenplay and best foreign language film. Technically, Minari isn’t a South Korean production, but it’s in the Korean language and is the work of a filmmaker whose parents are Korean. And it’s been bestowed with six Oscar nominations, including nods for best picture and best director. The zeitgeist works like that.


‘Minari’ is the South Korean word for water dropwort, a herb that grows much stronger in its second season, after it has died and come back. It was a metaphor that suited the writer-director Lee Isaac Chung, who built his film around the experience of his own family acclimatising to a new life in rural Arkansas. From the start, Chung asserts his creative credentials, bathing the viewer in the pastoral splendour of 1980s’ Americana, reflected in the features of a child’s face staring out of a car window. The latter is the American-born David Yi (Alan Kim), who is about to witness his father take his first tentative steps towards the American Dream. Their new home looks underwhelming: a long box on wheels. But it is the land around it that holds the potential to their future.


Lee Isaac Chung understands the power of a child’s face, and much of his story unfolds from this perspective, as David and his older sister Anne (Noel Kate Cho) observe their parents quarrel and make up, and watch as their father Jacob (Oscar-nominee Steven Yeun) toils under the baking sun to raise crops for the local Korean appetite. Anybody who’s seen Claude Berri’s heart-wrenching Jean de Florette (1986) will know that this is unlikely to be plain sailing, particularly when water proves to be so crucial to the farm’s success. At first, Jacob hires a local dowser but balks at the man’s asking price, so employs his own common sense to locate a water source. “Korean people use their brains,” he reassures his ever-attentive son. But Jacob’s wife, Monica (Yeri Han), just mutters, “This is not what you promised” – “It just gets worse and worse.” To make ends meet, Jacob and Monica spend their days separating male and female chicks at a local factory, a soul-destroying occupation known as “sexing.” Despondently, David and Anne sit and watch. Once detached, the male chicks are incinerated en masse. Life then takes a change when Monica’s mother, ‘Grandma’ (Oscar-nominee Youn Yuh-jung), arrives from Korea to take over baby-sitting duties. But ‘Grandma’ seems no such thing to David, as she cannot cook or bake cookies, swears a lot and watches boxing on TV.


All this is beautifully observed, and thanks to Chung’s expert direction and the quality of the five central performances, we become emotionally invested in the family’s status quo. There’s deliciously ripe support from Will Paton as the labourer hired by Jacob, a religious zealot who cannot thank God enough, cries copiously and drags a life-size crucifix along the dusty main road every Sunday. Emile Mosseri’s delicate, evocative score is another major plus, and earned another Oscar nomination for the film. Like Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland, for which Minari is competing for the top prize come April 25, Chung’s film takes a balanced view of the enchantment and idiosyncrasy of rustic America – as viewed through largely foreign eyes. It’s a winning, poignant snapshot of a close-knit family on the brink of a Brave New World.




Cast: Steven Yeun, Yeri Han, Alan Kim, Noel Kate Cho, Scott Haze, Youn Yuh-jung, Will Patton, Esther Moon, Jacob Wade, Ben Hall.


Dir Lee Isaac Chung, Pro Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner and Christina Oh, Ex Pro Brad Pitt and Steven Yeun, Screenplay Lee Isaac Chung, Ph Lachlan Milne, Pro Des Yong Ok Lee, Ed Harry Yoon, Music Emile Mosseri, Costumes Susanna Song, Sound Kent Sparling.


A24/Plan B Entertainment-Altitude Film Distribution.

116 mins. USA. 2020. Rel: 2 April 2021. Available on Curzon Home Cinema. Cert. 12A.