“Minari,” 미나리, translating literally to ‘water dropwort’ but more commonly referred to as water celery in English, is the namesake of director Lee Isaac Chung’s semi-autobiographical film. “Minari” follows the Yi family as they attempt to establish themselves in 1980s rural Arkansas. The film provides a glimpse into a life not often shown on the big screen and, while a bit slow in certain areas, delivers a poignant and heartfelt story of hope.
Strong characters are essential in any good film, and those in “Minari” propelle the film forward in a story far more driven by character than by plot. Family patriarch Jacob Yi (Steven Yeun) is headstrong yet likable, while matriarch Monica Yi (Han Ye-ri) is reserved and graceful. Their son David’s (Alan Kim) chubby cheeks and exuberant personality are complimented well alongside his big sister Anne (Noel Kate Cho) whose pensive expressions and controlled demeanor showed a young girl mature beyond her years. Add quirky, idiosyncratic grandmother Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung) into the mix, and you have a truly remarkable group of characters that could inject life and personality into even the dullest of stories.
Even with everyone delivering heartfelt performances, Han stood out amongst her co-stars as Monica Yi. A mother who only wants the best for her family, Monica’s struggle to find something of her own in her family’s new life is incredibly easy to sympathize with. Monica’s shame as she struggles with her new job and delight when her mother arrives from Korea to live with the family resonated deeply through Han’s masterful performance.
In one of her most powerful scenes, Monica sits beside her mother at the hospital. Without so much as sparing a glance at the camera, Monica’s distress at the state of her mother and the guilt she feels for what has happened could not be more apparent. With each stroke of her hand smoothing her mother’s bedsheet, Han cements Monica’s grief in the eyes of the audience.
Outside of individual character arcs, hope was a major theme of “Minari,” which felt particularly appropriate after the turbulent year that the world has experienced. In a time when hopeful glances out the window, wishing for a return to whatever one defines as ‘normal’ is commonplace, this film’s depiction of a family fueled by hope was especially touching.
As the Yi family hopes together: for a successful harvest, a cure for David’s heart condition, friends, and acceptance in a new area, audiences cannot help but see their own experiences with hope reflected back at them. Although the hopes of families during the pandemic differ from those of the Yi family in name, the sentiment behind them, the want of security and stability for one’s family, is the same. The hopeful message of “Minari” resonates throughout the film and serves as a gentle reminder that even in the darkest of times, all one needs is a bit of hope.
Previously available through A24’s Screening Room, “Minari” is now accessible on Amazon Prime Video.