Lee Isaac Chung directs “Minari,” a 2021 Sundance selection. The film is a record of childhood, focusing on a young Korean-American boy and his family. While breezy and quirky, it also handles some dark territory with Southern Gothic trappings. The film is understated, even in tone and solidly executed, having the flavor of a work by Ray Bradbury or T.C. Boyle.
Young David (Alan Kim) is a boy traveling with his family to Arkansas to start anew from California. They have just purchased a trailer on acres of land. The father Jacob (Steven Yuen) wants to grow vegetables. His wife Monica (Han Ye-ri) intensely dislikes the outdoors. To make extra money, Monica and Jacob work exhaustingly in a hatchery, checking the sex of chicks.
David is a cute, a dreamy and voyeuristic boy who embraces TV, America and caffeine. He has a potentially troubling condition of a heart murmur.
Right from the start, it seems that the parents are in for a dark spell. Monica hates the trailer, every section of it is brown. Jacob is sweaty and irritable. David and his sister Anne (Noel Kate Cho) brace for impact.
Soon Pentecostal Christianity comes to the fore as the family meets Paul, (Will Patton) who speaks in tongues and focuses on evil spirits which possibly blight Jacob’s land. The sinister Flannery O’Connor tones the film has largely give way to odd warmth and Paul is seen through David’s eyes as a good natured kook who carries a giant cross on his back.
Things become briefly threatening ala “Deliverance” when David is menacingly stared down at church by a boy, yet the mood shifts on a dime with smiles and laughter.
Grandma (Youn Yuh-jung) swears, giggles and watches wrestling. David has animosity to her, thinking she is a troublesome imposter. The reality is altogether different.
This airy film is bolstered by terrific performances, mainly by Alan Kim and Will Patton. Though the story might have benefitted more by a darker more existential feel to make its point, “Minari” is lively, swift and entertaining, not least because of its two realities. One, of Zen and quiet laughter embodied by the observant David, and the second of exorcisms and spiteful spirits illustrated by the presence of Paul.
Fear not. William Peter Blatty shifts into “Dandelion Wine,” while ever watchful David recalls something of the visitor in “The Man Who Fell to Earth”.
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