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The American Narrative and Minari

Updated: Feb 19

Dear Asian Youth,

What defines something as American? Is it the people? Is it the language? Is it the food? Or culture? The word “America” can conjure up different ideas for different people. Answers might change depending on where they live, the culture they grew up in, or the people they surround themselves with. That is, in my personal opinion, the beauty of the U.S. There is no singular definition to what “American” is. America in itself is a plethora of languages, cultures, races, and identities. Yet, while some may pride themselves on the country’s diversity and multiculturalism, there are still moments that remind some of us that we have never quite belonged.

About a month ago, the film Minari was released in virtual theatres around the world by production company A24. First premiering at the beginning of 2020 in the Sundance Film Festival, Minari is a semi-biographical movie reflecting on Lee Isaac Chung’s childhood growing up in a Korean immigrant family in rural America. The film follows the Yi family as they move from California to rural Arkansas during the Reagan Years. The husband, Jacob, played by Steven Yeun, hopes to start a farm where they will grow Korean vegetables, to sell to the influx of Korean Immigrants moving to the U.S. at the time. The movie follows his wife Monica, played by Han Ye-Ri, and their two kids David and Anna, played by Alan Kim and Noel Kate Cho respectively, as they face challenges on multiple fronts.

Adjusting to living in a predominantly white rural town, the family struggles to find a sense of community. In the beginning of the film, we see some very awkward interactions between the white people in the town and the Korean family. From befriending some very unique characters to facing subtle microaggressions, the movie insists on challenging racial biases, as most people in the town––while seemingly intimidating––are fairly friendly.

Monica's mother, Soon-Ja, played by Youn Yuh-Jung, moves in with the family and shares a room with David. This is where we begin to see the generational divide between the older generation that grew up in the home country (in this case, South Korea) and the younger generation that grew up in the U.S. There are several scenes where David and Anne struggle to get along with their grandmother, complaining about how she's “not a real grandmother” or that she “smells like Korea”. There is also one moment in particular that shows the cultural division between Jacob, Monica, and Soon-Ja. When a Korean ballad is playing on the TV, Soon-Ja says that Jacob and Monica used to sing the ballad to each other when they were a young couple in Korea. In that moment, they both look up in confusion unable to recall the memory. As if the couple had forgotten about their lives in their home country. In that moment, the grandmother says, “They come to America and forget everything,” a retort over the feelings that America has changed the family in a negative way.

Later in the film, as the family falls on hard times, we see the family both torn apart and brought together over love, loss, and struggle but eventually learning to accept and love one another for who they are. The film ends with the family, after witnessing the building where their crops were stored burn down in a massive blaze, sleeping snuggled together on the living room floor. A reference to a scene in the beginning of the film, when Jacob says to the family they should sleep together on the floor their first night moving in, to which Anne replies that she doesn't want to because her dad “snores.” All things coming to a full circle in the end.

Minari portrays the quintessential American immigration story: pursuing the American Dream and risking everything you have in the hope of a better life, while still experiencing the pains of being an immigrant in the U.S. There is a constant external struggle to find a community and sense of belonging. While there is also the internal turmoil of trying to let go of past traditions, while still wishing to cling onto your roots.

Yet, controversy was struck up a few weeks ago when the Golden Globes decided to categorize Minari as a “Foreign Language Film” due to the majority of the dialogue being in Korean. The categorization felt like a slap in the face for many within the Asian community. Minari is a film written by an Asian American screenwriter, produced and filmed in the United States, telling the story of a Korean-American family pursuing the American Dream. Being categorized as a Foreign Language film, “because it didn’t meet the 50% English language requirements” speaks to the sheer racism and hypocrisy within the American film industry.

The New York Times published an article by Maya Salam and Robert Ito titled, ‘Minari’ wins best foreign-language film, but not without controversy. The article describes how the stories categorization was not only a sidelining of the film but also revealed how hypocritical the categorization was:

“because “Minari” was in the foreign-language film category, it could not contend for either best-picture awards. (Worth noting, the film’s distributor, A24, submitted “Minari” in the foreign-language category.) The cast of “Minari” was eligible for acting nominations but did not receive any.