The current state of popular cinema makes telling the stories of first-generation immigrants a bit of a tightrope walk. Just last year, Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite won best picture at the Academy Awards in a historical win for Korean-Americans and more generally, Asian people (not that we should be considered singular by any means). This marked a shift, along with 2016’s Moonlight, towards the current identity politics mission statement and tokenization of ethnicity; the notoriously well-awarded Green Book ultimately was an exercise in white guilt, yet still won best picture. And only a year prior to this, John M. Chu’s Crazy Rich Asians marked the first Hollywood production in 25 years that could boast an all-Asian cast. With the startling statistic tied to this film it would be remiss of anyone to not see the unfortunate torch that this picture was forced to bear. The unfair positioning around the very specific Crazy Rich Asians being the model for “the” Asian-American immigrant story is braindead and only furthers the cycle of dehumanization that immigrants experience on an all-too-frequent basis. Asian-American representation in popular media has made little progress past the orientalist framework that white executives have propagated to tell us “this is where you stand”. Looking past identity politics, immigrant stories can be extremely hard to tell; often layered with struggles of insecurity in leaving what you’ve known your entire life, the suffocating isolation felt when there are no communities of people that look like you, and generational trauma placed on parents and children. How does one put these feelings into words and images? Yet despite the discourse that surrounds Asian-American immigrant stories every year, I still find myself excited at the prospect of seeing my family’s history told on screen, and with Michelle Zauner’s early stamp of approval (Michelle is a God in my eyes), Minari was no exception. Michelle was absolutely correct, Minari triumphs above any discourse centered around identity politics by not giving these discussions any wiggle room to focus on and rather centers itself around the intimacy of family and individual acceptance of self.
Minari is the story of Korean-American immigrants Jacob (Steven Yeun) and Monica (Han Ye-ri) as they look to escape their Arkansas-based chicken sexing jobs, uprooting their life in California with their two children David (Alan Kim) and Anne (Noel Cho) so that they can make something of their own. David has a heart condition that does not allow him to enjoy the wonderment of childhood that other children his age are able to. With Jacob’s excitement to start this new life with a farm that will grow Korean crops, the audience (and Jacob) quickly grasp at the idea that this is what building a life for your family in America should look like. Monica, however, is not sold on this idea. She worries that Jacob’s agrarian ambitions will place more strain on the Yi family than is worth. Not to mention she is shown throughout Minari feeling isolated and in need of community (this issue absolutely exacerbated by their new rural home). Monica’s doubts are confirmed by seeing Jacob spiral as the family loses county water because of Jacob’s redirection of the water line to the farm and produce buyers constantly screwing him over. Monica also worries that Arkansas storms put their family at risk showcased in a yelling match early on in Minari. The decision is made that Monica’s mother, Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-Jung) will relocate from Korea to Arkansas and live with the Yi’s.
Soon-ja is the beating heart of Minari. Her crass behavior and constant fight to win David’s love and approval provide for some of the most tender moments of the film. David is apprehensive to accept Soon-ja because she doesn’t fit the American model of what grandmothers should be. According to David, Soon-ja “smells Korean” (Anne’s retort that David hasn’t even been to Korea is one of my favorite lines that will surely go overlooked), doesn’t bake cookies, curses, gambles, and sits on her butt drinking Mountain Dew watching wrestling all day. With David looking to grasp onto any sense of identity he can, it is obvious why he is apprehensive to accept Soon-ja (David reminds me a lot of my father and myself). Yet Soon-ja’s presence is invaluable; bringing familiarity to struggles with isolation, combating dour economic situations with levity, and maybe most importantly Soon-ja plants the film’s namesake crop just on the edge of the Yi property.
The choice to make minari the savior of the narrative is obvious: minari is a swiss army knife crop that grows like wildfire and is used in a variety of ways across different Asian cultures. Minari can be used in salad, stew, pancakes, kimchi, and medicinally. The water dropwort’s obvious allegory for rooting life in foreign land is clear, yet I can’t help but read that minari also represents a reckoning with generational misunderstandings and the resiliency of family. Jacob and Soon-ja fundamentally approach agriculture in opposite ways. Jacob attempts to grow a variety of crops with the intention of the water coming to him. He rejects a well-finder at the beginning of the film, vaunting his Korean pride in regard to his ability to find a well himself. Soon-ja grows one crop and goes to the water herself, and ultimately Soon-ja’s approach bails the Yi’s out of a devastating crop fire and Jacob becomes a minari supplier. Jacob appears happier by the end of the film now that his marriage has been saved – in contrast to his initial hesitance to let Soon-ja live with his family. David also begins to ease up on Soon-ja as the two get closer during late-night shenanigans, and David’s ease turns to full blown love and appreciation for Soon-ja’s presence.
Minari finds success by telling a gentle immigrant story with visually warm and slightly overexposed imagery in moments of intense humanity, seen best when David serves Soon-ja urine instead of Mountain Dew, while allowing its characters to experience joy, forgiveness, and acceptance (which can be very rare in immigrant stories). Through all the terms and expectations that will be thrown at Minari, the story remains distinctly Korean-American. I see my grandfather in Jacob’s character. My grandfather was a similar age to Jacob when he moved to this country with my grandmother. The couple and their son (my father) settled down in Washington, DC with no money, no car, a rudimentary knowledge of the English language, and no friends except for one man that served with my grandfather in Vietnam. And despite the lack of resources at my family’s disposal, 3 days after arriving in DC, Papa found a job as a cashier at a 7/11 for $2.10 an hour. For two years, my grandparents worked 2-3 part-time jobs at a time to save money for their own business, and in 1975, rented out a vacant gas station in Northern Virginia. But the Northern Virginia winters are very cold, and the couple could only handle greasy, cracked, and bloodied hands for so long before lusting to work indoors. After a year of pumping gas, Papa purchased a grocery store from two holocaust survivors looking to retire, and knowingly or unknowingly, planted the seeds that would support his family for generations. From the moment Papa was hired as a 7/11 cashier, he has not stopped working full-time until now at the age of 80, where he is only working part-time. Talking with him the other day, we laughed as he told me he finally feels as if he’s allowed to have some down time and is pursuing a second master’s degree in theology this fall. Papa told me that living in a country that was constantly unable to support itself lit a fire in his heart to provide for his family every breathing moment of his life.
As mentioned earlier, I see my father and myself in David. The youthful impulse to blend into your surroundings, behave like kids that don’t look similar to you, rejecting older relatives’ gestures of love because you would rather have Coke over herbal tea. These were choices I unknowingly made that damaged my sense of self for an unseen time to come. Only recently have I come to love my Korean-American identity yet am still picking up the pieces. If it were not for these unbelievably strong individuals, like Lee Isaac Chung and Michelle Zauner, willing to tell parts of their stories, I would still harbor hate for this side of myself but because of them I do not have to. Healing is an ongoing process, though, and lots of work still needs to be done. However, stories like Minari help ease that process by providing me with strength through shared experience.