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Review: 'Minari' a touching story of making it in America

Steven Yeun stars in drama about a Korean family that moves to rural Arkansas

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

A family — mom, dad, son and daughter — pulls up to a trailer in the middle of a field. There's nothing around for miles. The kids think it's cool the home is on wheels, and run inside to play. The wife isn't quite as enthused. 

But the dad has staked out this property and identified it as his piece of the pie. And he sets forth to make it his own in "Minari," a tender, touching, honest story of an immigrant family making their way in the 1980s, carving out a life for themselves by making their claim on the American dream. 

Alan S. Kim and Steven Yeun in "Minari."

Troy-raised Steven Yeun plays Jacob Yi, the father, who intends to farm on the land in rural Arkansas and sell his crops to Korean grocery stores. He calls the property his Garden of Eden.

For subscribers: Adam Graham's interview with Steven Yeun

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His wife Monica (Han Ye-ri) has concerns. For one, their young son David (Alan Kim) has a heart murmur, and they're an hour away from the nearest hospital. And there's no community for them to ingratiate into. They're truly starting anew. 

"Minari" largely unfolds through David's eyes, as he and his older sister Anne (Noel Kate Cho) watch their parents struggle, fight and try to make their new life work. (There's a tremendously heartfelt scene where during an argument, David and Anne throw paper airplanes at their parents urging them to stop fighting, a perfect encapsulation of the intersection of childhood whimsy and reality.) 

Monica's mother Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung) comes to live with the family, and she and David's bond grows despite rocky beginnings. Intergenerational relationships on film are usually portrayed as simple and one-dimensional, this shows a more lived in version of the truth. 

Writer-director Lee Isaac Chung — himself a child of Korean immigrants who grew up on a farm in Arkansas — knows this territory well and keeps his ear and his eye close to the ground. There are no quick fixes or big moments where everything suddenly comes together for the Yis, it's a slow progression. Such is life. In "Minari," the magic is in the mundane. 

'Minari'

GRADE: B+

Rated PG-13: for some thematic elements and a rude gesture

Running time: 115 minutes

In theaters and on VOD Friday

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama