The American Narrative and Minari
an article by Chris Fong Chew
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.
The classification drew accusations of racism and favoritism — Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” (2009), for example, did not meet the English language requirement either, and yet was nominated for a best-picture prize — and calls for changes to the rules.”
Lee Isaac Chung, in his acceptance speech at the Golden Globes after Minari won in its category, said, “Minari is about a family. It’s a family trying to learn how to speak a language of its own,” he said. “It goes deeper than any American language and any foreign language; it’s a language of the heart.”
The choice words “American language” ring true because, while the predominant language in the U.S is in fact English, the United states (unlike many other countries) does not have an official language. The American language is no singular language. Placing things such as language requirements on films is not only racist but also incredibly damaging to the plethora of American produced films that aren't in English. Still, it's clear that organizations such as the Golden Globes are willing to make exceptions for certain films.
The categorization comes at a time when the Asian community in particular is coming to terms with the deep racism and anti-Asian sentiment within the U.S. We are reminded that we are still the “perpetual foreigner”, and that our place in American society is conditional based on how we are viewed by the white majority. Asians have been seen as adjacent to whiteness while our issues and stories have been swept aside.
Minari is a prime example of this. The sheer irony that a film that has America plastered all over it is written into the foreign language category. Minari, a film written by an Asian-American screenwriter, produced, filmed, and set in America, telling the story of a Korean-American family pursuing the American Dream categorized under foreign language only reminds us how inherently racist the film industry still is. How are Asian American stories too often swept aside?
Which brings me back to what defines something as American? Is it the people? Is it the language? Is it the food? Or is it culture? Minari reminds us that the American story is not just a white story. It is an Asian story, it is a Black story, it is a Latine story. It is a story that at its best transcends the barriers of language and culture. It's a celebration of diversity and finding community and commonality within one another. As we are living through a particularly divisive and violent time in American history, we need stories like Minari that remind us of what it means to be American, and it was an absolute failure of the Golden Globes to say otherwise.
- Chris Fong Chew
Cover Photo Source: Angelus News