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Review: 'Minari,' An American Story Of Uncommon Warmth And Grace


A young family, a fresh start, a lot of baby chicks and a grandmother who comes to stay - critic Bob Mondello says the Golden Globe nominee "Minari" has everything it needs to be the year's most heartwarming film.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Monica and Jacob Yi have spent the last decade scraping by in California, separating male from female chicks in a chicken processing plant. It is not the life they hoped for when they emigrated from Korea. And now that they have two small kids, Jacob's promised his wife a fresh start. As the film begins, Monica is getting her first glimpse of their new home, a double-wide trailer in the middle of an Arkansas field. The kids are excited.


NOEL KATE CHO: (As Anne Yi) Wheels. They're wheels. It's like a big car.

STEVEN YEUN: (As Jacob Yi) (Speaking Korean).

MONDELLO: Monica less so. This farm is not the fresh start she'd envisioned. Looking around at the five acres he's bought, Jacob, played by Steven Yeun, tells the kids...


YEUN: (As Jacob Yi) David.

MONDELLO: ...They're going to have a garden...


YEUN: (As Jacob Yi) (Speaking Korean).

MONDELLO: ...Which earns him a little swat from his wife.


YERI HAN: (As Monica Yi) (Speaking Korean).

YEUN: (As Jacob Yi) No, Garden of Eden is big, like this.

MONDELLO: Writer/director Lee Isaac Chung is recreating elements of his own childhood here. His dad moved their family to Arkansas when Chung was six. And the filmmaker tells this story through the eyes of 6-year-old David, who doesn't always understand the family tension...


YEUN: (As Jacob Yi) (Speaking Korean).

MONDELLO: ...But who has a strong point of view. When Monica's mom comes to stay with them - bringing peppers, anchovies and other Korean delicacies - David's immediate reaction is that grandma smells like Korea. And after she's been with them a while, he decides she isn't even a real grandma.


ALAN S KIM: (As David Yi) (Speaking Korean).

MONDELLO: Real grandmas bake cookies, he says. And they don't swear.


YUH-JUNG YOUN: (As Soonja) Oh, pretty boy, pretty boy. Pretty...

KIM: (As David Yi) I'm not pretty. I'm good looking.

MONDELLO: Clearly, they're going to end up friends. Also helping out is a Pentecostal farmhand played by Will Patton, who knows enough about working the land to be useful, even if, for him, everything comes down to religion, including planting cabbages.


WILL PATTON: (As Paul) You know what an exorcism is?

YEUN: (As Jacob Yi) Yeah.

PATTON: (As Paul) Out in the name of Jesus. Out in the name of Jesus - out.

YEUN: (As Jacob Yi) (Laughter) OK. Now things - things will grow.

PATTON: (As Paul) So how come you putting them so close together? You don't want to put them so close together like...

MONDELLO: The filmmaker named his movie "Minari" after a Korean herb grandma brought with her that is resilient and grows wherever it's planted - a nice metaphor for immigrant families. The Yi family has its challenges, certainly. Little David has a heart murmur. Mom's not happy about being uprooted. Dad's trying to prove himself. And there are natural challenges.


MONDELLO: But resilient they are and grow they will. Their dream is the American dream, and their story in "Minari" an American story of uncommon warmth and grace.

I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.