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The Search for America’s Soul: Minari

26 May

In honor of Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month, I have decided to write a review of the recent award-winning Korean language film “Minari,” which had a profound effect upon me. It is a uniquely American film focusing on a family of Korean immigrants who move to rural Arkansas in the 1980s in order to pursue the American dream of starting their own farm.

The director, Lee Isaac Chung, grew up on an Arkansas farm, so the film is inherently authentic and semi-autobiographical.  His character-driven script and gentle, unhurried direction give the cast and story room to breathe. This is top-notch filmmaking from beginning to end.

As the film opens, the Yi family are moving from California to Arkansas. The father Jacob (Steven Yeun) and wife Monica (Yeri Han) are chicken sexers, which means they identify the sex of newborn chicks for chicken farms. The females are kept for eggs and poultry, while the males are thrown into the incinerator.

Jacob has purchased a cheap plot of land and the dilapidated trailer home that sits on the property. Together, they will raise their two young children and hopefully start a successful farm so that they can leave the monotonous, soul-killing work of chicken sexing behind.

There is clear marital tension between Jacob and Monica, and it is only exacerbated by the isolation and loneliness of their new home. Apparently, their life in California was much more social, because they were surrounded by other Korean and Asian families. However, property taxes were escalating and they couldn’t afford to stay, so they decide to move to rural Arkansas where the cost of living is cheaper and life is much simpler and safer.

Jacob and Monica try to ingratiate themselves into the local community in Arkansas by joining a church. Their ethnicity is a novelty, but they are mostly welcomed. They quickly find that holding down their jobs, trying to start a farm and raising two children is too much, so they send for Monica’s mother, Soonja (Youn Yuh-jung, winner of the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award), an elderly woman who instantly infuses life and humor into the household. Her first goal is to win over the skepticism of her young grandson David (Alan S. Kim) and her granddaughter Anne (Noel Cho) who is somewhat more reasonable.

But even with the new help on the home front, Jacob struggles with his farmland. One problem after another occurs, beginning with the lack of cheap water supply. However, an angel appears in the form of Paul (Will Patton), an eccentric Vietnam veteran and evangelical Christian, who offers to help farm the land. They make an unlikely, yet effective team. However, just as the situation changes for the better, Soonja suffers a stroke, throwing the family into crisis.

The anchor of the film is Steven Yeun, an actor born in South Korea and raised in Michigan who is the star of the popular TV series “The Walking Dead.”  His work in “Minari” is nothing less than masterful, a performance of subtlety and depth matched by Yeri Han (Monica) and Youn Yuh-jung (the feisty grandmother Soonja), both of whom were nominated for SAG Awards.

Just what is minari you may ask?  It is an edible Korean water plant, like a watercress, that is said to grow almost anywhere. This seems like an apt metaphor for a movie about the resilience of immigrants. However, it is so much more than that, because of the racial reckoning in America and, of course, the recent attacks on Asian Americans in New York City and beyond. It is impossible to watch “Minari” without keeping those events in mind. It is not just about the American dream; it is a search for America’s soul.

“Minari” is a poignant, heart-filling celebration of putting down roots, family bonding, and inter-racial connections that is ultimately very intimate, improbably funny and steadfastly stirring. You can borrow it from BCCLS libraries on DVD and Blu-Ray.

Written by:
Ethan Galvin
Reference Librarian

A Suspenseful Country Noir: The Captive

24 Mar

Typically, I’m not drawn to fast-paced, high-tension adventure stories that pit man against nature  in a survival of the fittest scenario. However, Fiona King Foster’s debut novel The Captive is not only a propulsive wilderness adventure, but a suspenseful and tightly written country noir with considerable plot substance and gritty well-developed characters. I was lured in by the author’s  vivid descriptions of what seemed like an Old West landscape and a family struggling to survive  during a harrowing exploration of loyalty, trauma and resilience. 

Brooke Holland, once involved with her family’s drug war with the rival Cawley clan, has  established a new identity with her husband Milo and her two preteen daughters, who knows nothing of her violent past. They are content operating a small farm in the remote wilderness, miles from any form of established civilization. All seems well until Brooke learns that Stephen Cawley has escaped federal prison and is probably hunting for her with the intent of settling an  old score. When Cawley raids their farm, Brooke subdues him and attempts to transport him on foot to a distant federal outpost, thereby claiming the $5,000 bounty, which could save their  failing farm. Thus, she begins a harrowing trek with her husband and children across a forbidding and dangerous winter landscape. 

Along the treacherous journey, Foster intersperses detailed flashbacks from Brooke’s past, which further propel the current tension and danger and allows the reader to feel compassion for her as she develops a steely determination to save her loved ones. The rough winter poses obstacles and various unsavory and ruthless characters that they meet along the way pose threats to Brooke’s ultimate plan. Even getting separated from her children during a winter blizzard adds suspense to this fast-paced adventure and keeps the adrenaline pumping. 

The suspenseful thriller builds as strained family dynamics are brought to a breaking point and old wounds between rival family drug wars resurface. The ghosts, both real and imagined, from  Brooke’s past still haunt her and she questions her motives and well as her actions and the  consequences they may have. Ultimately, the chilling adventure leads to an explosive climax  involving an intense stand-off, a fire, and a gun-shooting duel, all reminiscent of the wild west.  Granted, this denouement may seem outlandish and larger than life, but it seems to fit the suspenseful buildup and tension and gives the reader a sense of hope for Brooke, her family and  their future. 

Available from Hoboken and other BCCLS libraries.

Written by:
Ethan Galvin
Information and Digital Services Librarian

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