Oscar hopeful “Minari” is an intimate drama that memorably evokes one South Korean family’s quest to achieve the American dream. The film, directed by Lee Isaac Chung, is a visual memoir of his real-life father’s attempt to start a farm on a remote parcel of land in Arkansas and the pivotal role played by his grandmother. “Minari,” scheduled to be released by A24 on December 11, enters the Oscar race with an impressive pedigree. It won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at Sundance this year. And last year’s Best Supporting Actor winner, Brad Pitt, is one of its three executive producers; Pitt previously won Best Picture as a producer of “12 Years a Slave” (2013).
The story’s central conflict stems from the opposing views regarding the farm taken by Jacob (Steven Yeun, who is also an executive producer) and his wife Monica (Yeri Han). As much as he hopes the farm will give his family financial independence, she thinks he has shortchanged his family. This is not some vague concern: their son, David (scene-stealer Alan Kim) has a heart murmur and their new house is at least one hour away from the nearest hospital.
Their dream home is a rundown trailer set on wheels and cement blocks without so much as three steps leading to the front door. But the family’s comfort is not a priority for Jacob. After moving the family from California, he wants to be his own boss and leave his current job at the local hatchery. He invests part of the family’s savings on equipment to irrigate the land to grow crops and paints a rosy picture for his kids.
The arrival of Monica’s mother, Soonja (Yuh-Jung Youn), to babysit David and his older sister Anne (Noel Kate Cho) kicks the story up a notch. She brings customs of the old world into the family’s life in America, including spices, card games and seeds of the herb minari, guaranteed to grow anywhere.
She is not an easy fit with the kids, though. “Grandma smells like Korea,” David confides to his aghast parents, but he’s equally candid with Soonja, informing her that real grandmothers bake cookies, don’t swear and don’t wear men’s underpants. When she tries to compliment him, in Korean, saying that he’s pretty, his reply is priceless. “I’m not pretty,” he says. “I’m good-looking.”
“Minari” offers wonderful scenes like these while quietly building to a harrowing climax that jeopardizes the family’s future, as Monica predicted. Gold Derby currently gives “Minari” 13/1 odds in the Best Picture race based on the combined predictions of thousands of users, placing it among the 10 likely nominees as of this writing.
Chung is on the bubble for Best Director with 22/1 odds. Oscar’s current love affair with foreign directors (only one American filmmaker has won the category in the last 10 years) gives him an advantage, as does his status as a prestige darling of international cinema, thanks to his 2007 film “Munyurangabo,” which received noms from the Gothams, Independent Spirits and the Cannes Film Festival.
Strong performances from Yeun, who currently ranks sixth with 18/1 odds in the Best Actor category, and Gotham Award nominee Youn, who’s fifth with 15/2 odds in the Best Supporting Actress race, make Oscar nominations seem easily within reach. The gorgeous soundtrack by Emile Mosseri seems destined for a Best Original Score nomination. And Lachlan Milne’s evocatively pastoral cinematography could also place if “Minari” gathers steam going through the awards season.
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