Minari PG, 115 minutes, 4 stars
The Oscar haul of Parasite last year put Korean filmmaking in the US, if not international, limelight. But Korean-American writer-director Lee Isaac Chung had been making films for more than a decade. He grew up on a farm in rural Arkansas and his new film, Minari, apparently tells a semi-autobiographical story.
Set in the 1980s, Minari shows one family's pursuit of prosperity in the US. David (Alan Kim), a chicken sexer, moves his family from California to Arkansas to start a small farm growing Korean produce. His wife Monica (Yeri Han), who liked living in the city, is a bit sceptical about the whole thing from the start. They and their children, serious-minded Ann (Noel Cho) and youngster David (Alan S.Kim), who has a heart ailment and is a bit of a brat - are soon joined by Monica's mother Soonja (Yuh-Jung Yuon), brought out from the old country to help out with the kids.
Perhaps surprisingly, the family seem to be fairly easily accepted into the rural community. They attend church and hire eccentric evangelical Christian Paul (veteran Will Patton) to work on the farm. But while David is optimistic and things initially seem to go well, problems arise and debts mount and eventually this brings the tensions between him and Monica to a head.
The dialogue is in Korean and English - often in the same scene - and it's in the interactions of the family members and the little character moments that the film is particularly successful, such as Monica placing $100 in the church collection plate (presumably wanting to make a good first impression) and Soonja surreptitiously fishing the banknote out when the plate passes her way.
Although the pace is unhurried and occasionally sluggish, sometimes it feels like scenes were left out. The daughter is an underdeveloped character (which might reflect her place in the family, though she doesn't seem unloved) and we don't get much of a sense of the family's interactions with the wider community.
Chung's focus is very much on the family and its ups and downs and while the film's momentum slows sometimes, the actors form an excellent ensemble. The kids are natural and the couple's strained relationship feels real.
Soonja is the scene-stealing character of the movie, a feisty, foul-mouthed, mischievous woman whose presence is initially resented by her grandson (he says she's not a "real grandmother" because she doesn't bake cookies and wears men's underwear).
She's the one who plants the minari, a hardy vegetable that gives the movie its title - and possibly its central metaphor, of a cultural transplant that manages to thrive in its new environment even as the family struggles. Perhaps it's intended to represent hope - not only for this family but for all immigrants, both economically and emotionally.