Minari (Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute)
Film / A24

‘Minari’: A Reconsideration of American Cinema

When A24 released the trailer for Minari in 2020, I couldn’t finish watching it in its two-minutes-and-five-second entirety. Not because I hated it, but because my heart hurt from loving it so much that I dreaded the moment when the trailer would end. I knew that in American cinema, this kind of visibility for Korean Americans in Western popular culture was meant to be temporary and unreliable.

Minari, directed by Lee Isaac Chung, follows a Korean family’s move to Arkansas, driven by their father Jacob’s homesteading dream to pioneer the first Korean farm in the American South. His reluctant wife, Monica, follows him to “the best dirt in America,” along with his precocious daughter, Anne, and his mischievous son, David. This family of four is soon joined by grandmother Soonja, whose wild-haired Koreanness is off-putting to the family. When she greets David with foul-tasting traditional herbal medicine, he bursts out in child-like anger: Soonja is not a “real grandma!” There is no outrageously dramatic plot, no three point linear structure. Instead, Chung employs a slice-of-life narrative to fill out his characters. The film is autobiographical, largely influenced by the director’s childhood in 1980’s Arkansas. And throughout his interviews, Chung’s vision always remained to humbly honor the portrayal of his family.

Not only has Minari been lauded with film accolades, including the rare honor of receiving both the U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize and the U.S. Dramatic Audience Award at its 2020 Sundance premiere, but critics claim Minari is one of the most American films of the year. In Minari, specificity becomes the path to the universal; Lee Isaac Chung’s rural Arkansas childhood becomes a canvas upon which children of immigrants can color their own experiences. Some critics claim this is possible because Chung puts identity second, while others attribute the clear connection to the American Dream. Nonetheless, consensus remains that this predominantly Korean-language film has been canonized into American cinema. So what does this mean for Hollywood?

Right around the buzz of awards season, attention surrounding Minari drew comparisons to Korean American director Bong Joon Ho’s award-winning 2019 film, Parasite. Director Lee Isaac Chung came out with a statement to justify the difference between his film, Minari, from Bong Joon Ho’s satire: “[The characters] speak Korean and [the film is] about a family and there’s some Korean culture involved, but I think this film speaks a lot to what America is. It contains a lot of people doing many different things, many different walks of life, and in that way it’s quite different from ‘Parasite.’” 

As this incident brings attention to the much-unacknowledged efforts to police national identities, this is a moment for us to evaluate how we view global diasporic people. Consider the conditional status of the “hyphenated American.” Even though the AP Style Guide rid themselves of the antiquated, arguably patronizing, tradition of hyphenating people of dual ethnic descent in 2019 (ie. Iranian-American, Chinese-American), it feels like the hyphen is still present and successfully working to ‘Other,’ albeit invisibly, Americans with prefixes. According to postcolonial theorist Stuart Hall, imaginative geography and history “helps the mind to intensify its own sense of itself by dramatising the difference between what is close to it and what is far away.” Visualizing South Korea as the common denominator between Koreans and Korean Americans allows gatekeepers of American cinema to erase the closeness between Korean Americans and the homes they created on American soil. No amount of praise and induction of Minari as a quintessential American story can excuse the systems and ideologies set in place to firmly deny it so.

When Minari was placed in the Best Foreign Film category for the Golden Globes, Korean American actor Daniel Dae Kim called it the “film equivalent of being told to go back to your country when that country is actually America.” It was ineligible for Best Picture because it did not meet the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s guidelines that require more than fifty percent of English dialogue. It is clear that Hollywood’s rules to quantify foreignness versus Americanness are antiquated and flawed, and that’s not to say, a double standard. Quentin Tarantino’s 2009 World War II film Inglorious Basterds’ dialogue was seventy percent non-English (German, Italian, and French) but nominated for Best Drama Film.

Regardless of the systemic issues that Minari must navigate, the film was a historic moment for Korean Americans, including myself. I grew up in a Korean-speaking household and it was the first American film that my parents could watch without complaining about subtitles. In scenes of Jacob and Monica chick-sexing bins of baby chicks at a dark, gloomy factory, my mom couldn’t help tugging my arm and pointing out, excited by familiarity, “Look! That’s the type of labor Korean immigrants before us had to do.” And watching Jacob’s stubbornness as the family patriarch, we stared pointedly at my dad who sat, arms-crossed, pretending not to notice. Quite frankly, even as Americans of 20 years, it was the first film where my family could identify with “American cinema.”

When the film ends, albeit too soon, with the folksy murmur of Emile Mosseri’s score, and as the credits roll onto a pitch-black screen, I see my family of four reflected across the television. The minari roots that took hold in Chung’s 1980s Arkansas are just a fraction of the roots of millions of immigrants that continue to settle down in America and grow upward, interweaving through forgotten and preserved histories as new leaves sprout each season. There is an understanding that Lee Isaac Chung’s film stirred something in us: conversations, hope, and promise.

The American future is destabilizing. And the transformations to come in American cinema will be jagged, disheartening, and never enough. But I find solace in the quiet but omnipresent beauty of Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari, and the promise in Jacob’s unwavering words: “Even if I fail, I have to finish what I started.”