REVIEW | On Lee Isaac Chung's MINARI: A True American Film
Set in 1980s rural Arkansas with an American family’s experience at its core, Director/Writer Lee Isaac Chung created a timeless American classic that resonates with immigrants and their families. With the controversy barring the film from competing for best picture categories in the Golden Globes because it is not at least 50 percent in English, Minari was forced to contend for the best foreign-language film (which it won). This reveals the intense prejudice and hypocrisy in the United States toward immigrant American families, echoing the same sense of destabilization that the Yi family suffers from in the film.
The introduction of this struggle is beautifully invoked when Monica Yi (Yeri Han) drives up the dirt road to the family’s new home, held up by cinderblocks.
“What is this place?” Monica asks, bewildered.
“Our new home,” Jacob Yi (Steven Yeun) says.
“This isn’t what you promised,” Monica says moments later, after rejecting Jacob’s assistance to pull her into the trailer home, carrying herself up to join the rest of her family inside.
As my own mother immigrated to the United States from South Korea in the 80s, I couldn’t help but recognize the hardships, expectations, and failures the Yi family experienced, echoing many emotions and goals with the countless failed chicken farms (for eggs) my family had in Southern Illinois. “[Minari] tapped into something I’ve never really felt,” producer Christina Oh says in a Q&A with Jim Hemphill hosted by American Cinematheque, after sharing that she connected with the film on a ‘human emotional level.’ I agree wholeheartedly, as do many others who shared grief and heartache with the Yi family. Minari strikes a connection with forgotten Americans, ones who struggle every day to live.
My mother would often preach maxims to me and my siblings when I was younger, which reflects a type of philosophy I cherish to this day. She'd always tell us that family is forever, and even though friends come and go, we'd always have our siblings, herself, and our dad by our side. While cheesy and something that's probably painted in illegible cursive on a thin, wooden plaque, to my family, it meant that through hardships and failure, we'd lift each other out of whatever rut we got stuck in because that's what Koreans do. And to that, I say Minari is about how a family suffers together.
Josh Ethan Johnson/A24
Minari also doesn’t stray from discussing racial and cultural differences, highlighting prejudicial perspectives from the oppressive majority as well as internalized racism from the Yi children, like when a local Christian kid asks David (Alan Kim) why his ‘face is flat’ and the learned shame David feels of his halmoni ‘smelling like Korea.’ However, Minari undercuts this, educating its viewers that it’s possible to overcome these prejudices, like when the same local child and David switch toothbrushes (David using an American toothbrush, the friend a Korean toothbrush) to signify this unlearning and relearning, or more heartfelt when David grows a connection with Halmoni (Yuh-jung Youn). This type of internalized racism reverberates through America today, so Minari shamelessly asks: 'What is so wrong about being a part of a global family?' And to that, the film answers: 'Nothing.'
Lee Isaac Chung discusses what it means to be Korean American, but more specifically, how immigrants survive in the United States and how the children of these immigrants manage their duality, making Minari a true American film. The aggressively realistic struggles from working until exhaustion to support the family, the sorrowful joy of being brought spices from home like Halmoni Soonja did, or the effort in growing Korean plants to help sustain comfort for other Korean people (one of them being minari, the film’s namesake), resonate with a wide audience for a reason—Minari taps into the bare bones of livelihood and questions how much a family can suffer, yet also thrive from.
At the end of the Q&A, Hemphill combined questions that centered around a similar topic and asked why the film connects through different cultures and languages. Both Lee Isaac Chung and Christina Oh breathed the same essence, explaining that ‘people respond to honesty and truth and a vulnerable sense of anything.’ In the case of the Yi family, they share their virtues and vices, their hard work, achievements, and failures, all in an homage to the American people—this film reaches out to Americans who share similar struggles because it’s a common immigrant experience, specifically shared on U.S. soil.
Chung meant for it to be set in the 80s, during a time when many Koreans immigrated to the United States and found farming difficult. ‘All of that converges in the story,’ Chung says. Even though the film is slightly autobiographical, his family moving to Arkansas in the 80s for farming, Chung ‘needed [the Yi] family to become its own family.’ In the same air, that family became America’s family, turning into a representation of America’s Midwestern Heartland, a voice of immigrants who made the United States their new home, of their first-generation children who vie to make their parents' suffering worthwhile, and of Americans who exist on the hyphen, as Oh suggests, seeking truth to their identity.
Susan Yim is a fiction writer from the Greater St. Louis Area. Currently, Susan lives in Las Cruces, New Mexico where she is the Prose Editor for Puerto del Sol and an MFA Fiction candidate at New Mexico State University. You can find her @fearthenorms.