Looking back at all of the Asian American stories I’ve absorbed with enthusiasm and gratitude over the years, starting with The Joy Luck Club (1993), it strikes me that heartbreak—stemming from intergenerational divides in immigrant families—is a throughline. From Better Luck Tomorrow (2002) to The Namesake (2006), many of the Asian American stories that make it to the screen or the pages of books mourn the unknowability of our parents’ generation or the absence of their love. But this is a kind of heartbreak that says more about the United States and its overwhelmingly white cultural gatekeepers than it does about the full and complex lives of Asian Americans. It seems the heartbreaking stories are the ones we’ve been allowed to tell.
Minari, director Lee Isaac Chung’s latest feature film, is no exception to this common theme of generational anguish. Yet while Minari contains and articulates heartbreak as it follows a family of Korean American immigrants who move to Arkansas in the 1980s, what is most noteworthy is the strong current of humor and mischief—plus joy, reverie, and curiosity—that runs throughout this gentle, sun-dappled family drama. As the film unfolds, we first see the youngest member of the Yi family, 7-year-old David, played by a show-stealing Alan Kim, as an impish shadow trailing his older family members: his responsible yet sarcastic sister, Anne (Noel Kate Cho); his strong, perceptive mother, Monica (Han Ye-ri); and Jacob (Steven Yeun), his tender, ambitious father, who dreams of growing an abundance of Korean produce on his land. Once the Yi family settles, the arrival of their grandmother Soonja, played by Korean screen legend Youn Yuh-jung, disrupts the tenuous balance of their new home.
The film is semi-autobiographical, based in part on Chung’s own childhood memories of growing up on his family’s farm in Lincoln, Arkansas, and the story shines with detailed precision and specificity. In the film’s production notes, Yeun writes that the script won him over by “coming from an intrinsic, relatable humanity rather than a narrow identity.” Minari captures the full spectrum of a family’s experience as they attempt to lay down roots—both literally and figuratively. Minari’s sensitivity comes as a relief to viewers, myself included, who were braced for the familiar beats of immigrant trauma: abject racism, domestic violence, patriarchy. These are real issues that plague many in our community, my family included, and works like Min Jin Lee’s brilliant novel Free Food for Millionaires (2007) or Bing Liu’s moving documentary Minding the Gap (2018)—two excellent entries into the Asian American artistic canon—address brutal family dynamics head-on. But these woes don’t comprise our collective experience, and Minari shows that we can make room for a different kind of Asian American story.
Chung and his talented cast of actors refuse to reduce any of Minari’s characters to mere caricatures. Soonja, in particular, upends young David’s idea of what a grandmother, specifically an American one, should be. In many ways, David and Soonja are seemingly positioned as complete opposites: He’s the youngest in the family, and she’s the oldest. She represents an unfamiliar link to the old country—she “smells like Korea,” David complains, although he’s never been there—while he’s American born-and-raised. “You’re not a real grandma,” he tells her in one scene. Soonja, though, refuses to be deterred by David’s initial distrust and greets him with unfailing warmth. After spending time with her, David learns she’s a foul-mouthed, card-playing rebel who’s just as playful as he is. As she embodies Soonja, Youn is a delight and revelation to watch.
Similarly, Jacob subverts stereotypical assumptions of Korean fatherhood. After David pulls a particularly naughty prank on Soonja, Jacob scolds his son and makes him kneel in a position of Korean punishment that I found uncomfortably familiar. I felt the tension rise as Jacob, despite Soonja’s objections, angrily orders David to go outside and collect the switch that would be used for his own spanking. Here we go, I thought to myself, expecting this angel-faced child to get the beating of a lifetime, a sight I felt unprepared and unwilling to witness. But, to my surprise, and true to David’s cheeky personality, he comes back holding only a wispy weed. I burst into laughter as Soonja let out a cheer, rooting for her grandson, and Jacob put his anger aside. This moment of humor and solidarity was a welcome divergence from the pain I’d anticipated.
I confess that I felt particularly on edge any time white Arkansans entered the frame. My fear was two-pronged: At a time when reports of violent, anti-Asian attacks are on the rise in the United States, I am acutely aware of the threat of racial hatred. And as a Korean American with ties to the South—my husband was born and raised 20 miles from Chung’s family farm, and I grew up in Virginia and central Florida—I also hoped for a humane portrayal of this community and region that I know well. The crude, Hillbilly Elegy-esque caricaturization of rural whites often depicted in film does a disservice to its subjects, settings, and audiences alike, and I fretted about what harm might befall the Yis at the bank, the church, or out in the fields. But Chung is a smart, humane storyteller who chose to depict only two instances of benign ignorance coming from white children who ultimately intended to befriend David and Anne, not offend them. “I had the luxury of knowing people like this, just as a part of my life,” the director writes in the film’s production notes. “It felt important to not allow any of them to symbolize something or be any kind of social or political archetype.”
In its details, “Minari” feels like it’s tailored for Korean American viewers like me, yet in its expansive, all-American themes of bucking societal norms, finding and maintaining faith, and reveling in natural splendor, I can see it appealing to many audiences.
The art of storytelling, I have learned over time, involves a series of critical decisions about what you leave in and what you edit out. As commonly happens when BIPOC creators work with white gatekeepers, I’ve found myself feeling powerless while witnessing what gets edited out of my own work—what I’ve been told does not matter to mainstream white audiences, who I supposedly need to reach—or what never gets published at all. However, my life in America has not been one note: Of course I’ve experienced bigotry and suffering, but I also live a life filled with love, acceptance, hilarity, and hard-won understanding. Seeing Chung claim the power to create a new narrative with Minari is an inspiring experience. In its details, Minari feels like it’s tailored for Korean American viewers like me, yet in its expansive, all-American themes of bucking societal norms, finding and maintaining faith, and reveling in natural splendor, I can see it appealing to many audiences.
That’s why it was so disappointing to see Minari, a story about chasing the American dream, get boxed into “foreign film” categories by influential cultural arbiters. By virtue of its mostly Korean dialogue—but completely discounting its American director, American distributor, and many American actors—the Hollywood Foreign Press Association forced Minari to compete for Best Foreign Language Film, not Best Motion Picture Drama. (It won Best Foreign Language Film at the 2021 Golden Globes.) In a similar move, the HFPA made the unpopular decision to place the Chinese American film The Farewell (2019), which also grapples with Asian American identity, in the foreign film category for its 2020 awards show. Although these decisions were predictably disappointing, I don’t believe the homogeneously white HFPA speaks for all American audiences, just as I don’t believe Asian Americans are limited to our most sorrowful stories. Though I found myself weeping throughout Minari, it wasn’t due to the Yi’s misfortunes or narrow themes of immigrant trauma. My tears, rather, came as a release of my feelings, so stirred by the laughter, the joy, and the warmth on faces so much like my own.
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