Film review: Minari (2021)

I recently watched this Korean film that has received a lot of praise. It tells the story of a Korean immigrant family (parents, two children, and the wife’s mother) trying to make a life for themselves in rural Arkansas and the increasing tensions between the parents as they worry about money and disagree as to whether they should stay or go back to California, and the complications caused by the arrival of the grandmother. (Youn Yuh-jung won an Academy Award for her role as the grandmother role and Steven Yeun was nominated for the role of the father.)

Here’s the trailer.

It is a curious film in terms of its narrative structure. Rather than pursuing one story arc, it is a series of vignettes about the family grappling with internal tensions, caused by different ambitions of the father and mother. The father wanted to move to this location to pursue his dream of creating a successful farm growing vegetables that are favored by Koreans, while the mother does not like the idea of leaving the California city they used to live to move to a mobile home set far away from any town, where the nearest hospital is an hour away. This is of particular concern because her young son has a congenital heart murmur that requires him to not run or otherwise exert himself.

I had not read about the film before watching it and as it went on it undercut many of my stereotypical expectations of what it would be about. For example, the film begins with the family arriving in the area and I thought one storyline would be about racial tensions, where the white locals give the immigrants a hard time. But that does not happen. The locals treat them very well. The family goes to the local church and the white churchgoers welcome them and one little boy asks the son to come for a sleepover.

As another example, the parents make a living by working in a chicken hatchery where they, along with other Korean workers, have to identify the sex of the chickens and separate the males from the females, work that is highly tedious. I thought the film might be about how the hatchery owner exploits and abuses the Korean workers but that does not happen either.

Then there is a local named Paul who helps on the farm. He is a Pentecostal who speaks in tongues and offers to conduct exorcisms to rid the farm and home of evil spirits. On Sundays, his idea of religious observance is not to go to church but carry a heavy wooden cross along the street. But he is not made into a figure of fun, as I thought might happen. Instead he is treated affectionately.

The film also violates the theatrical rule about Chekhov’s gun.

Chekhov’s gun. .. is a narrative principle that states that every element in a story must be necessary, and irrelevant elements should be removed. For example, if a writer features a gun in a story, there must be a reason for it, such as it being fired some time later in the plot. All elements must eventually come into play at some point in the story.

In this case, early in the story the little boy tells his grandmother not to go near a nearby creek because of poisonous snakes. A little later, when the headstrong grandmother take him there anyway, they see a deadly snake crawling along a tree limb. I fully expected the snake to do something to them then or perhaps later but it never does.

Then there is a massive storm and a tornado watch that shakes their mobile home and I thought it would destroy it. But apart from causing the lights to go out momentarily, it does not do any damage.

So the film belongs to the realist school of film making and the bulk of it consists of a series of anti-climaxes,. Although it is not a comedy, it reminded me of this sketch from That Mitchell and Webb Look. (Note the appearance of Olivia Colman long before she became a big star.)


  1. rblackadar says

    I like your thoughtful review, and I don’t really fault you for being reminded of Mitchell and Webb — heck, even in the trailer you can see a direct connection — but I think the quality of Minari rises well above the level that might deserve M&W’s satire. Unconventional and slow moving, yes, but a worthy and memorable film. Well worth checking out.

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