FEBRUARY 10, 2021
AS A CHILD of immigrants, I have usually found myself nervous, perhaps even afraid, of “the immigrant story.” Of course, it is absurd to say that there is only one immigrant story. But in contrast to the vast array of white, European immigrant stories on film, representations of Asian American Pacific Islanders have been few and far between in the American cultural landscape and imagination. When Crazy Rich Asians (2018) was released, it had been 25 years since the last American film from Hollywood with an all-Asian cast, The Joy Luck Club (1993). The stakes of rectifying this glaring gap seemed so high, that the publicity campaign for Crazy Rich Asians positioned the film with the impossible task of representing all Asians and Asian Americans (who are not a monolith), when the story was in fact about a very specific, exclusive network of “crazy rich” elites (and the one “fish out of water” who is not). This concern — and immense pressure — for Asian representation in mainstream culture can be its own form of erasure, performing the very “model minority” myth that it is trying to overcome.
But my fear and discomfort around “the immigrant story” runs even deeper than my weariness of Orientalism, especially of the internalized variety. Immigration and its aftermath are usually heavy stories, as exemplified in The Joy Luck Club: the pain and sacrifice of the first generation in leaving one’s home country, the searing loneliness of arriving in a foreign land, pressure on the next generation to be nothing but excellent, as well as generational strife and misunderstanding. The weight of historical and intergenerational trauma — especially if it involves a reckoning with internalized racism — is sometimes too much to bear or even process, let alone explain.
In this limited landscape which has defined Asian American identity predominantly in terms of their suffering or their exoticism (both dehumanizing), watching Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari was a balm to my spirit, not because it eases or fulfills that pressure for representation, but because the film does not concern itself with representational politics at all. The film is anchored in the autobiographical details of the writer and director’s own childhood growing up on a farm in 1980s Arkansas. Minari, the Korean name for a plant originating in Asia (also known as Javan dropwort, Chinese celery, Japanese parsley, or Indian pennywort), has both literal and metaphorical significance for the story — of what it means to plant seeds and take root in a foreign land, with all of its hope, heartache, precarity, and the possibility of flourishing.
The film tells the story of the Yi family in rural Arkansas, in search of their American Dream. Like so many Korean immigrants of that time, Jacob (Steven Yeun) and Monica (Han Ye-ri) had come to America seeking economic opportunity. But after 10 years of monotonous chicken sexing work in California, Jacob uproots his family, including their children David (Alan Kim) and Anne (Noel Kate Cho), with the dream of starting a Korean farm in Arkansas. The story’s pastoral imagination is quintessentially American: Jacob sees this land as a new frontier for the growing Korean immigrant community, and he adheres to a strict doctrine of self-reliance, insisting, for instance, on digging his own well rather than hiring a contractor. For Jacob, his American Dream is an existential matter of salvation for him and his family.
But Jacob’s hopes of planting new roots in Arkansas do not go as planned. Korean merchants in the cities are fickle, and his DIY well dries up, along with the vegetables that have already been planted. Monica feels intensely isolated living in the middle of nowhere, away from anything familiar, like a Korean grocery store. Their son David has a weak heart condition, for which they have to drive at least an hour to the nearest hospital in case of an emergency. And Jacob’s tunnel vision leads him to redirect the county water supply intended for their home to the farm instead, leaving their place without running water. It is clear that his American Dream is actually straining the health of the family, particularly Jacob and Monica’s marriage.
When Monica’s mother Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung) arrives from Korea to help the family and alleviate Monica’s homesickness, she brings a bounty of Korean goods, including herbal medicine for David, gochugaru (Korean red pepper flakes), myulchi (dried anchovies), and seeds of minari. Soon-ja plants these seeds at a nearby riverbank, explaining to her grandson David, “It can grow like weeds [by the water], and everyone — the rich, the poor — can enjoy them. You can put it in everything: medicine, kimchi, soups, and stews.” Soon-ja’s way of planting seeds is remarkably different from Jacob’s method: rather than manipulating the flow of water, she seeks out a creek where water abundantly flows on its own. Her presence brings humor and lightness to what is otherwise an existential crisis — amid their insecurity and strife, there is also joy, a feeling so rarely depicted in Asian immigrant stories.
The flourishing of minari in the very last scene hints at the possibility of planting seeds in what is at first a foreign land, and toward a different imagination of the meaning of prosperity — of what it means to be a part of something bigger than your own dream (or even failure), whether that is the land, or your family. This reimagination also opens up further possibilities for a new kind of immigrant cinema, one that gives Asian American experiences the kind of care and complexity they had rarely been afforded on film. Minari is, visually and narratively, a warm, dreamlike tale, its warmth emanating not only from the pastoral, bright imagery of the American heartland but also (more importantly) from the intimate portrait of this family.
The profound humanity of Minari’s tale is anchored in the perspective of the boy, David. Drawing on Willa Cather’s My Ántonia (1918) as his literary inspiration, Lee Isaac Chung finds a way to tell the story retaining his own seven-year-old point of view. As the writer and director notes in an interview with IndieWire:
You enter into it not just with the boy in the present, but the idea is containing a retrospection, looking back at a story through memory. […] Once you go with Steven Yeun and you take away [the boy’s] gaze, at various points, somehow that would topple the film over. It doesn’t work as much, it’s self-serious. It works seeing it through innocent eyes, that anchored the film.
Much like how the present tense in literary fiction can actually signal an event that has happened in the past, viewers are present with David in a way that immerses them into the dreamland of his memory. The film is filled with vivid audio and visual details that brought me back to my own childhood as a Korean American; my parents also listened to Lana Et Rospo’s “I Love You” and Christian hymnal tunes. I too used to watch my family play the card game Go Stop (though I still don’t know how to play it myself). My mother also used to bring me gochugaru, myulchi, and hanyak (herbal medicine) every time she visited me when I was away at school. When David, with his unfiltered child mouth, says, “Grandma smells like Korea,” I felt a pang of guilt — I was once embarrassed by the smell of kimchi and secretly poured precious herbal medicine down the drain. It is a cathartic experience feeling seen like this on the big screen. But it is also wrenching to watch my own parents and grandparents in the characters of Jacob, Monica, and Soon-ja, as if I’m understanding a first-generation Korean American experience for the first time.
It is the film’s intimate point of view, rather than a bird’s-eye view, that makes the film so powerful. Chung’s structural decision to fixate the camera on the family — and to keep the other elements of cinematography simple — highlights and deepens each and every character, electrifyingly performed by a multilingual cast. The story is able to weave in an intergenerational story without departing from the gaze of the boy. Alan Kim and Noel Kate Cho, both bilingual Korean American actors, deliver un-self-conscious performances that arrest our attention. Steven Yeun, whose family immigrated to rural Saskatchewan and then to Michigan, offers a charismatic and moving performance that brings to life a first-generation Korean American father. In a Q-and-A following the A24 screening on November 29, 2020, Yeun recounts what his own father told him upon viewing the film: “I see that you see me.” Han Ye-ri, a South Korean native, also shares that she thought about her own mother, and how her mother treated her during her childhood, in playing the role of Monica.
Youn Yuh-jung, a veteran actress in South Korea, is a brilliant choice for the character Soon-ja, her casting a tremendous feat for the Minari team. While Youn is deservedly gaining an increasing amount of attention in the US for her performance in Minari, such as Best Supporting Actress from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, Youn has over 50 years in her television and film career (I grew up watching her in almost every Korean drama; I have lost count). Youn’s performances have filled countless primetime living rooms in South Korea over the decades, becoming a nearly indispensable presence for Korean family dramas. As one of the most familiar faces on Korean television, her presence both upends and anchors this Korean American story.
The film’s performative and aesthetic embrace of perspective, of vividly immersing the viewer into a direct experience, may tell us something about why it has been so hard to tell this kind of story in the past. For one thing, Minari shows what is possible when more resources and opportunities are given to casts and crews that actually understand (from their own lived experiences) the story that they are trying to tell. Although Asian American Pacific Islanders have long been in the United States, cultivating the land as Jacob and Soon-ja do, a story like Minari still feels groundbreaking, because we are not experiencing this story through the white gaze. The white gaze, in fact, is inverted and exposed within the film, particularly in the church scene, when we encounter a white boy staring at David.
The recent Golden Globes controversy, in which the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA) classified Minari under the Foreign Language category (thereby making the film ineligible for Best Motion Picture Drama), is a stinging re-inscription of the “perpetual foreigner” stereotype. The HFPA also did this with Lulu Wang’s The Farewell (2019), another autobiographical Asian American film, which did not receive nearly enough of the accolades that it deserved. While the HFPA may argue that 70 percent of non-English dialogue marks the cut-off line, this Vulture piece rightly points out the double standard and hypocrisy when it came to Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009) and its significant portions of German and French dialogue. The use of Korean language — especially as it may be heard through the memory of a Korean American boy — and the cast of Korean and Korean American actors are precisely what make Minari so true to the Korean American experience.
There is no doubt that this is not only a Korean American story, but also a quintessential retelling of the American Dream. As such, the timing of the film’s release also raises an important question about its broader meaning for our current moment: how can we make sense of this story in light of our present discourse about the American Dream and its unattainability? The Reaganism of the 1980s, which functions as the story’s historical backdrop, is a bygone era. America can no longer claim exceptionalism or affirm its status as the “promised land,” and we are confronting a moral crisis — not only about our failure to live up to our ideals of equality and justice for all, but also about the ethical consequences of pursuing unlimited economic prosperity at the expense of one another and this land. While the future seemed to be disappearing for most of this past year, Minari is a tender reminder that we may just be able to dream again.