Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari, a deeply personal film about a Korean immigrant family settling in rural Arkansas, has been the subject of critical acclaim and six Oscar nominations, most recently winning Best Foreign Picture at the Golden Globes. Being eligible only in this category, attributed to the majority Korean dialogue, felt like a slap in the face to many due to its setting in America, it being created by Americans, and most of it being a film that encapsulates the American Dream. This choice by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA) created backlash and opened up a dialogue about the perpetual foreigner stereotype many Asian Americans face.
The dialogue surrounding the Asian American experience has not just been opened by the HFPA’s unpopular choice to define Minari as a foreign film. Emboldened by the strides that the Black Lives Matter movement has put forth in acknowledging the anti-Blackness ingrained in American culture, the general public has definitely become more aware of the struggles all people of color face, not just Black Americans. Since the beginning of the Coronavirus pandemic, there has been a surge in anti-Asian hate crimes– horrible and disgusting, these crimes have motivated many to speak up and speak out about the racism Asians face, whether it be microaggressions in everyday life, harmful tropes perpetuated in media, or the more visibly insidious crimes that have been dominating the news cycle as of late. The harmful stereotype that has been brought up due to the Golden Globes is the perpetual foreigner stereotype, the idea that although Asian Americans (and other people of color) are just as American as anyone else, they are othered and made to feel like they don’t belong while being told to “go back to your country” when “their country” is America. As someone who is biracial and ethnically ambiguous, I’ve often gotten the question “where are you from?” and Pennsylvania is rarely a response the inquirer is pleased with. Although there is nothing inherently wrong with being curious about others’ ethnic backgrounds, it is a subject that needs to be approached with care and nuance rather than bluntness and insensitivity, especially when acknowledging that white people rarely get interrogated on their backgrounds the way people of color often do.
Minari is interesting in its choice to not depict any overt discrimination towards its Asian family in a predominantly white community in the way that so many other stories about people of color are centered around racial trauma. Instead, it focuses on the American dream. Being an immigrant is integral to so many Americans’ identities – you deal with complexities such as growing up in a home where English is not the primary language, the dissonance between the first generation and the second, and feeling too American for your immigrant family but too foreign to the community you live in. It’s an area that Lee Isaac Chung explores beautifully, with grace and comedy, through the innocent sweetness and deviousness of eight year old Alan Kim’s David and his relationship with his grandmother, Youn Yuh-jung’s Soon-ja; a subtle clash between tradition and assimilation.
The humor of the interactions between David and his grandmother is a big aspect of why this movie is so feel-good. Their relationship is unconventional and precious and full of hilarious interactions. When she is first introduced, David shyly resents her, claiming she’s “not a real grandma” and “smells like Korea.” Blunt and rude in the cute way only little kids can get away with, Soon-ja takes it all in stride, amused by her grandson and his antics. Although she is the grandmother, her youthful spirit shines through in Youn Yuh-jung’s Oscar nominated performance. She curses and gambles and does what she wants rather than what she’s supposed to do. She’s not hesitant to splash water on her grandson, encourage him to run despite his heart defect, or tease him due to his occasional bed-wetting.
It’s not just this special bond that makes Minari so lovely; the appeal of Chung’s story is universal in its embrace – even though it is about Korean immigrants, at its core it is about family–the choices and sacrifices, the arguments and fights, the closeness and connections. Steven Yeun plays Jacob, the idealistic father, who uprooted his family for his dream of a large farm, his Garden of Eden. Yeun’s acting earned him an Oscar nomination – the devotion and hard work of his character is palpable and intense. Han Ye-ri plays Monica, his skeptical, more realistic wife. Both are strong willed and determined to do what’s best for their family. They clash as their children attempt to intervene by throwing paper airplanes adorned with pleas to stop fighting. By centering the movie around family, and specifically childhood, Chung captures a certain Joie de vivre in David most of us have lost by now: the joys of mundanity, the adventure of everyday life, that feeling when you’re so young that the entire world is your oyster, that anything is possible.
Apart from the story and characters, two aspects of Minari were stunningly beautiful to me: the cinematography and the score. The cinematography was done by Lachlan Milne, whose DP credits include Taika Watiti’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016) and the hit TV show Stranger Things (2016-). He frames his shots so gently and intently, demonstrating the natural beauty of rural life so many of us forget exists. The world of Minari is green and gorgeous and lush, filled with opportunity, the visuals mirroring the hope of the story. The score was composed by Emile Mosseri, who also composed original scores for Miranda July’s Kajillionare (2020) and Joe Talbot’s The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019). The music of Minari is warm and demure, delicately adding to the movie’s most emotional moments, earning Mosseri an Oscar nomination for best original score. Mosseri’s simplicity of strings and piano add a peaceful, tranquil spirit to the film overall.
Overall, Minari is a movie about family. Although the characters struggle, what never wavers is their devotion to their family, which is why Minari is the movie we needed this past year. With so many of us sheltered in place, navigating the world during a pandemic, our love and commitment to family has been tested and strengthened, just like the family in Minari, just like all families across time, space, culture, and religion.