In the 2020 Oscar-nominated drama “Minari,” the Yi family moves from California to rural Arkansas to create a new start for their family. But this film captures more than just a typical hardworking immigrant story. “Minari” encompasses the grit and perseverance, while gracefully balancing the dynamic of financial struggles, everyday adversities, to the resilience of family.
As a Korean living in Georgia, the feelings of comfort, nostalgia, and representation flooded over me, because I saw a reflection of myself throughout the characters in the movie. Being from suburban Georgia, and the family in the movie being from rural Arkansas, the similarities between this movie and my own childhood are profoundly similar.
Relating to the little boy David (actor Alan S. Kim), my life’s anecdotes were encapsulated through watching my immigrant parents starting their own small business, being helpless throughout family disputes, and living with my Korean-orientated elders while being culturally assimilated in America.
Asian Representation in Film
At face value, this seemingly simple film feels like another cliché hardworking immigrant story, but it’s the complete opposite. Unearthing this film, I started to visualize the intrinsic values, experiences, and stories, all too many Asian American individuals resonate with.
As a Korean American, and as a son of my immigrant parents who sacrificed their aspirations and dreams in hopes of creating the “American Dream” for me, it was heartening to see a story like mine on the big screen. Representation like this matters to the millions of Asian kids across America who have only seen Asian roles as nothing more than just side characters to the Black and white leading actors in the majority of films in America.
I saw myself relating to the boy that was saying “grandma smells like Korea.” Growing up in an area where my counterparts were only in shades of Black and white, it was easy to internalize this same prejudice against my own race, and I started to feel out of place. And during the years when my grandma used to live with us, I saw her as the farthest thing from my “Americanized” identity, judging the people who had the most “Koreaness” to them.
A scene that exemplifies this disconnect between cultures is when the grandmother tells David he is a “pretty boy.” Offended by this statement, he shouts, “I’m not pretty. I’m good-looking.” Many Korean grandmothers like mine, used this type of rhetoric. Often, Korean grandmothers call their grandchildren, boy or girl, “yeppeun agha,” translating to “pretty baby.” This culture barrier is not only fostered by Americanized toxic masculinity, but also the difference in cultural rhetoric. I found myself antagonizing so much of my heritage because of its cultural differences from American norms.
But sentiments like the scene where Monica, the wife, is seen crying when her mother brings Korean ingredients such as Myeolchi (Korean dried Anchovies) and Gochugaru (Korean Chili Pepper) shows how deeply rooted I am in my culture, regardless of how much I try to run away from it. I realized how much of my identity is influenced by Korean culture — just as much as American culture. The identity I have today would not be shaped the same without even one of those components.
Jacob and Monica’s Dichotomy
What’s more impressive about this film is its ability to capture the complex nature of balancing finances and the connection of family through Jacob Yi, the father (played by Steven Yeun), and Monica Yi, his wife (played by Yeri Han).
While Jacob dreams of having a huge garden in Arkansas, epitomizing the stereotypical white rural American dream of owning a farm, laboring fieldwork, and even the dirtied tank top attire, Monica contemplates her decision of following her husband. In contrast, Monica envisions a more urban-like lifestyle, with a more poised fashion taste in her attire throughout the movie.
The dichotomy is not only shown in their opposing superficial preferences, but even in their personalities and values. In the beginning, Jacob tells his son that male chickens have no purpose because they can’t lay eggs or taste good. This further emphasizes the importance of being useful as a male. On the other hand, Monica longs for her mother, signifying the value of family to her. These foreshadowings are later depicted in the contrast between Jacob and Monica where they argue about whether providing financial stability is more important than the essence of family bonds.
Church and Christianity
The concept of church and Christianity is also uniquely presented in the film. Although Jacob seems to have little to no interest in the supernatural values of God, Monica envisions the church as not only a place to worship, but also a community where she hopes to meet other Koreans like herself. However, she finds herself in a white-dominated church. )In an interview with PBS News Hour, “Minari” director Lee Isaac Chung shares his thoughts and experiences on how the Christian church was a key part of his identity.)
In the same church scene, David, the boy, having had his first interaction with a white peer of his, is racially insulted by his white counterpart. He unknowingly discards that uncomfortable interaction and even refers to him as a friend when asking his mother if he can have a sleepover with the white boy. Similarly, Anne, the older sister, also has her first encounter with racism. A white girl approaches Anne and asks if she is speaking anything in Korean while repeating an assortment of, “Ching Chong.”
These moments throughout the movie will resonate with anyone who has experienced these racial remarks intertwined with a heavy dose of ignorance. Rather than confronting their white peers, the characters simply brush it off, an anecdote I’ve had to encounter numerous times throughout my life as well.
Six Oscar Nominations
Despite growing popularity in Asian films, such as last year’s Oscar-winning film, “Parasite,” there are still areas where Asian stories are suppressed in winning industry awards such as the Academy Awards.
Many still classify “Minari” as a foreign language film, when ironically, it is from an American film production company: A24 film. Furthermore, Lee Isaac Chung is an American director, Steven Yeun is an American lead actor, and it was filmed in America.
Nonetheless, “Minari” has six well-deserving Oscar nominations, including:
- Best Picture for Christina Oh
- Best Actor for Steven Yeun
- Best Supporting Actress for Youn Yuh-Jung
- Best original score for Emile Mosseri
- Best Director for Lee Isaac Chung
- Best Original Screenplay for Lee Isaac Chung
Movies are not just a source of entertainment, but rather a medium where stories, like mine, are represented. As more Asian representation is shown in films like “Minari,” I only hope to envision a future where Asian kids like me can sit in a movie theater, feeling seen and understood.
“Minari” is currently in theaters. You can also rent it on-demand through various mainstream streaming services including Amazon, Apple TV, Google Play, Vudu, and YouTube.