“Life began for me when I ceased to admire and began to remember,” said famous writer Willa Cather.
This quote was a major inspiration for Lee Isaac Chung’s new film Minari, based on Chung’s own experience growing up as the child of Korean immigrants in Arkansas. The film portrays the “American Dream” through an immigrant lens, showing how difficult social and economic mobility can be in isolation and amidst a language barrier.
The film follows Jacob and Monica Yi (Steven Yeun and Han Ye-Ri), Monica’s mother Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung), and their two young children David and Anne (Alan Kim and Noel Kate Cho). Set in the 1980s, the film follows the Yi family as David moves them from California to Arkansas after spending the last of their money on a few acres of land to build a farm.
The film feels familiar and subversive at the same time. So many immigrant experiences reflected in film and television are defined by cities, like Brooklyn or The Visitor. In a unique twist, Minari explores immigration in a rural setting. The Yi family sacrifices the resources of an urban setting, such as nearby hospitals and a Korean community, to live in a place where Jacob would be able to afford enough land to build his own farm.
The film opens with the Yi family driving through the land Jacob bought when they come upon their new home. The camera pans past the lush fields to land on a rundown, modified trailer sitting in the middle of the property. Monica stays silent, but her pursed lips and crossed arms make her true feelings clear. Jacob tells her, “Don’t be like this.” Monica replies, “This isn’t what you promised.”
This moment, like so many others in the film, feels deeply personal. The subtleties exposed in the simple interaction show the strain their immigration to America and move to Arkansas has put on their marriage. The burden of caring for their young children while also earning enough money to survive makes it difficult for them to focus on their own relationship.
Monica is distraught at the idea of living in a rural “hick-town.” She resents Jacob for uprooting their family from a stable job (determining the sex of chickens for factories) and spending their entire life savings on this land. Jacob, on the other hand, is determined to provide an example for his children. He wants to live on his own terms, on his own land instead of working for someone else. He would rather bankrupt his family and fail at building a farm than live a mediocre life doing anything else.
Monica and Jacob’s life before their move to Arkansas is a mystery, but it is clear that the stakes for success are higher than they have been in the past. They have moved to a place with no community, no significant form of income, and no second plan.
The other central relationship in the film is between David and his grandmother, Soon-ja. Soon-ja moves in with the Yi family after a particularly destructive fight between Monica and Jacob. Monica is thrilled to see her mother, who is her only living relative. Soon-ja is initially hesitant to share a room with David, saying she believes American children like to have their own rooms. “He’s not like that, he’s a Korean kid,” Monica replies.
However, David’s immediate resentment of his grandmother demonstrates a generational difference between himself, his parents, and his grandmother. His expectations for his grandmother are distinctly American, and he is disappointed she cannot fulfill them. Instead of baking cookies, she brings a foul-smelling tea for him to drink every morning. Instead of reading him bedtime stories, she teaches him to gamble.
David eventually warms to his grandmother’s peculiarities, and they become close. They take daily walks together through the seemingly endless property, slowly learning from one another. The strained relationship of Monica and Jacob juxtaposed with the budding friendship between David and Soon-ja demonstrates the beauty and agony of making a way for yourself in a new country.
Although the language of the film is predominantly Korean, the story is distinctly and deliberately American. Chung’s childhood experiences reflected in the film are universal for anyone beginning a life in a new country. The burden of success placed upon Monica and Jacob is crippling. But the ways David and his grandmother bond and teach each other is just as sweet as the crumbling relationship is heartbreaking.
Minari’s gentle and emotional story is getting plenty of attention from awards shows. In addition to six Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, it won Best Foreign Language Film at the Golden Globes. The Hollywood Foreign Press Association's (HFPA) decision to nominate the film in the Best Foreign Language category was not without controversy, considering this made it ineligible for the Best Drama Category.
This categorization is particularly troubling because it knocks the film out of mainstream discussion. By nominating the film to Best Foreign Language rather than in a more competitive (and more prestigious) category, the HFPA is ignoring the fact that the film is directed by an American, shot in America, and is a reflection on the attainability of the “American dream.”
The HFPA’s decision to relegate this film into a foreign movie category simply because of the language demonstrates a disconnect with the ideals of the American identity. This experience is so familiar to many families who immigrated to America. It’s a disservice to imply that the immigrant experience is any less American than anybody else’s.
"Minari is about a family. It's a family trying to learn to speak a language of its own. It goes deeper than any American language and any foreign language. It's a language of the heart, and I'm trying to learn it myself and to pass it on, and I hope we'll all learn how to speak this language of love to each other, especially this year," said Chung in his acceptance speech for Best Foreign Film at the Golden Globes.
Although the foreign language nomination reflects a disappointing and narrow-minded view, storytellers such as Chung continue to expand the conversation on defining the American identity and ultimately hinting that there can be no singular definition at all.