Steven Yeun and Han Ye-ri play parents who leave California behind in search of better prospects for their family in director Lee Isaac Chung’s steelily nostalgic Mianri. Set in the 1980s, Jacob and Monica Yi move their children David (Alan S. Kim) and Anne (Noel Cho) to rural Arkansas. The pair are immigrants from Korea, and while they work as commercial chicken sexers, Jacob has hope of using the fertile land he has acquired to farm traditional Korean vegetables, which he intends to sell to a growing American market. Joining them in Arkansas is Monica’s perceptive mother (Esther Moon) who arrives from Korea to provide company and childcare, with a suitcase full of delicacies, including some seeds of minari — a wild growing vegetable used in Korean cooking.
Director Lee mines his own history, — he also grew up on an Arkansas farm in the 1980s — grounding the film with a precise, yet lyrical depiction of the everyday hardships and sense of isolation that troubles Jacob and Monica, and the clash of cultures and expectations that occurs between the children and their grandmother. Much of the praise rightly levelled at Minari will focus on the relationship between David and his grandmother, and it is from there that the film finds much of its (at times) cutesy humour. But it is the handling of Jacob and Monica’s strained marriage that really impresses. As the couple’s warring impulses regarding money, success, health and community set them on different paths, Minari manages to be psychologically convincing and, above all, empathetic.
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