‘Minari’ Is a Landmark for Asian American Cinema

‘Minari’ Is a Landmark for Asian American Cinema

‘Minari’ Is a Landmark for Asian American Cinema

Lee Isaac Chung’s poignant immigrant drama is the kind of film that can be felt with all five senses. 


Minari’s power is anchored in its incidental details, the most substantial of which are unveiled upon the arrival of the film’s comic relief and catalyst: the grandmother, Soonja (Youn Yuh-jung). Visiting the remote trailer home of the Yis, the family at the center of Lee Isaac Chung’s semiautobiographical immigrant drama set in 1980s Arkansas, Soonja comes bearing gifts that struck me with the kind of ritualistic familiarity so few films do. First she pulls out gochugaru (Korean chili pepper flakes) from her suitcase, followed by anchovies, an essential ingredient that’s the base of so many Korean dishes. Her daughter Monica (Han Yeri), the Yi family matriarch, begins to cry; these ingredients are clearly hard to find in the Yis’ new home. “Because of anchovies?” Soonja teases, though both know the significance of the gesture.

My own mother, who lives just outside Seoul, has long held the belief that one cannot find authentic gochugaru in the United States, including in Brooklyn, where I live, and every time we visit each other on opposite ends of the world, she makes sure I have plenty of chili flakes to take home, along with bags of anchovies for soup stock. Anyone can recognize the universality of a mother’s love in Chung’s scene, but to see it mirroring my own so precisely is invaluable.

There’s another thing Soonja brings from Korea: the seeds of minari, the titular herb native to East Asia that is used in many Korean dishes. The beauty of minari is that, once planted, it can thrive even in foreign, unfamiliar places. The metaphor as it relates to the Yis’ own uprooted lives will be made clear as the story progresses, but Chung avoids hitting us over the head with it.

As Soonja unpacks her life to stay with the Yis, David (Alan S. Kim), the youngest child and Chung’s fictional surrogate, remarks, “Grandma smells like Korea.” The statement is equal parts rude and amusing, but it resonates for how much it evokes a visceral memory. The olfactory is known to activate recollection best among the senses, but merely hearing that line became a piercing reminder of my own grandmother’s scent: a mixture of soybeans, herbs, and perfumed makeup. There’s something toasty in there too, like the chestnut Soonja peels for David.

“Grandma smells like Korea” is less abstract than it sounds and also works to strengthen the film’s figurative meditation. Soonja doesn’t mold to the American ideal of a grandmother (the kind who bakes cookies), and at 7 years old, David already grapples with the dissonance between his identities. Soonja also proves to be something of a minari herself, withstanding her distrustful grandson’s hostility and pranks with valiant glee and adjusting to a town and country completely unfamiliar to her.

In Minari, each facet of this immigrant Korean family’s life can be felt with all the senses. You can smell not just Grandma’s personal scent but also the musty stench of dried urine from David’s recurring bedtime accidents. You can taste the bitter herbs Soonja makes him drink. You can hear it in the way the children speak English amongst themselves when their parents speak Korean. For the patriarch, Jacob (Steven Yeun), the experience is mainly tactile: His conviction lies in the very dirt their mobile home stands upon. He grasps at the soil with his bare hands, promising his skeptical wife that this is the American dream—or, rather, it’s the foundation from which to harvest that dream. It’s the best dirt in America, Jacob insists, and he plans to farm Korean vegetables on this abundant soil. The sheer visual splendor that Minari’s setting provides shouldn’t go ignored either: Cinematographer Lachlan Milne (Hunt for the Wilderpeople) captures the lush greenery of the Ozarks with painterly style.

The film almost immediately confronts the sacrifices and consequences of Jacob’s ambition. Monica, who longs for Korean community, doesn’t conceal her disappointment in their new surroundings. Later, she brings up an even more legitimate concern: The nearest hospital is an hour away, a possibly fatal oversight because David suffers from a heart condition. “You chose the farm over our family,” a frustrated Monica tells Jacob during a climactic fight.

But Chung’s writing and directing so skillfully map the nuances and complexities of this family that his characters never come off as one-dimensional. Jacob is no villain here; he is a strict yet tender father and husband. He also bears the responsibility of being the eldest son in his own family; this is a pressure so overwhelming that Korean women are customarily warned against marrying first-born men. Knowing that may help viewers better understand how Jacob became so tunnel-visioned in his need for self-sufficiency. Monica, who has always supported her husband’s endeavors but who has also grown weary of her social isolation and lack of personal agency, is the true beating heart of the film.

The cast’s harmonious chemistry enhances Chung’s vision beautifully. Yeun, who ditches the American-infused Korean he used in Lee Chang-dong’s Burning for a Korean-inflected English here (to mixed but generally impressive degree), fully embodies the immigrant father desperate to make something of himself in uncharted territory. Han does wonders with the barely perceptible movements of her face, especially when Monica has little to say amid the family’s more vigorous gestures and movements. Kim is a newcomer to behold, as is Noel Kate Cho, who plays David’s more understated older sister, Anne. But it’s Youn who steals the spotlight; even as she leans toward caricature, her Soonja brings much-needed humor and vitality to a drama that could otherwise sink easily into the dour. As Youn elevates the film, Chung saves her character in the final act from being just the silly grandmother.

Portraits of Korean American immigrant life are already hard to come by on film, but Minari takes a road even less traveled by focusing on Korean immigrants in rural America. This choice was inspired, of course, by the director’s own life. Chung’s family moved to Arkansas in the 1980s for the agricultural opportunities. My own family moved from Korea to Los Angeles in the early ’90s, but the film’s narrative and emotional similarities are, unsurprisingly, still resonant. Like the Yis, we lived in cramped quarters. We found community in a Korean church and also attended a too-white church. We encountered racial prejudice that we swept under the rug. We drank a lot of Coca-Cola because we believed American products were unquestionably good—just like the Yis consume Mountain Dew because it is “water from the mountains” that they believe has health benefits. Our patience was tested, our faith shaken; to this day, I think my mother wonders if the move was the right choice.

Filled with such specifics, which will feel deeply personal to any Korean American viewer—or any Asian American one, for that matter—Minari is another landmark entry in Asian American cinema, following the likes of Lulu Wang’s The Farewell. Though big strides have been made in the past few years with Asian representation in Hollywood, these kinds of bilingual, bicultural stories—neither a rags-to-riches narrative nor a harrowing cautionary tale—are still very rare in American cinema.

But in late December, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association caught flack after announcing that Minari would not qualify for a best picture nomination at the Golden Globes due to its mostly Korean dialogue, relegating it instead to the best foreign language film category, even though it is an American-produced movie about American life by an American director. (The Farewell suffered the same fate.) People were quick to point out that films like Inglourious Basterds and Babel, which also heavily incorporated multiple languages, qualified for best picture, most likely due to casts featuring white A-listers. (Ironically, Brad Pitt, who starred in both, serves as Minari’s executive producer.) It’s a bit of a life-imitates-art moment, recalling the racial microaggressions the Yis endured to assimilate in their new setting. But categories be damned: Minari, remember, will grow and flourish just about anywhere.

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