We should all have a grandmother like the one Youn Yuh-jung plays in Minari. Her Soonja is the kind of cool grandma that kids don’t fully appreciate until they’re no longer kids. Like the titular Korean herb, she is resilient, seemingly delicate, but tough and adaptable. Mostly she’s sublimely, fiercely herself.
Every moment Youn is on screen is a joy. The bond she forms with her 7-year-old grandson, David (Alan S. Kim), moves us powerfully. David doesn’t know what to make of this offbeat, card-playing, Mountain Dew-swigging lady. She doesn’t bake cookies or fit with his Americanized notion of what a grandma should be like. Soonja prefers to watch TV slack-jawed like a teenager, and to swear like one, too. David is embarrassed and slightly repulsed. Soonja doesn’t give a hoot. She hasn’t lost her own sense of childish zeal, and is drawn to David’s cleverness — even when it’s used against her. She withstands his pranks unflappably and helps him in ways other family members cannot.
This septuagenarian with an impish grin comes into his life when David needs her most. Soonja ends up being the person that will tell David the things he truly needs to hear — even if he doesn’t know he needs to hear them.
David’s congenital heart murmur has made him fearful. Soonja encourages his confidence and sense of adventure, insisting “You’re the strongest boy Grandma’s ever seen!” When he wakes up frightened in the middle of the night, she holds him close, singing the song they fashioned together on one of their excursions: “Wonderful, wonderful minari.”
Soonja faces her own physical battles, suffering a stroke that leaves her partially paralyzed and sliding into the early stages of dementia. Youn exudes vitality, despite convincingly portraying an elderly woman struggling with serious maladies.
As we watch her lovable portrayal, it’s easy to be moved to tears. What a simple, yet singular joy for a child to be nurtured by such a warmhearted grandmother. Before he knew better, David insisted she was not a real grandma. Suppressing a smile, she responded: “I’ll try to do better.” But, it’s more than clear that Youn Yuh-jung is already the best.
— Claudia Puig