Minari: A quintessential American film for the Asian American experience

When the trailer for Minari dropped about four months ago, it caught everyone’s attention for being an immigrant story — more specifically, a Korean American one. A few months later, as Minari made its rounds in film festivals, it caught everyone’s attention again for being nominated as a “foreign” film. Thanks, Golden Globes.

The Golden Globes’ nomination logic was that Minari was predominantly in the Korean language. This rightfully infuriated every immigrant who took to social media, reminding the powers that be that a lot of families in America are multilingual. To equate Minari with Parasite, an actual foreign film, is a severe simplification of the movie. 

Let’s put it this way: Parasite made me emotional because I saw the Korean language on the big screen in my random Midwestern city. Minari made me cry because I felt deeply seen.

Gochugaru

When I saw the trailer for Minari for the first time, I got a sense that it would be special. Although my family didn’t suddenly move out to the middle of nowhere to try to start a farm, there was something deeply familiar — yet surreal — in seeing characters that I could easily assign to my family. 

I immediately took to Twitter to find out how I could watch the film. Almost every Korean American on Twitter was asking the same thing. Someone would post a festival that was hosting it, only to sadly announce moments later that tickets were gone. I got really lucky in snagging a ticket to the Hawaii International Film Festival, and on a November Thursday at 11pm, I buckled down to watch Minari for the first time. 

Going into the movie, I already expected to cry at least once. And I did, but not at any grandiose moment. At one point, the grandmother unpacks her luggage and carries out bags of 멸치 (myolchi), or dried anchovies, and 고춧 가루 (gochugaru), or pepper powder. The mother gets emotional as she thanks the grandmother and quickly dips her index finger into the bag of pepper powder to taste it. 

I immediately burst into tears. 

On January 13th, I got to watch the movie again to celebrate Korean American Day. I wondered if I’d still cry at the gesture.

I did. 

And in the Q&A section afterwards, hosted by Sandra Oh, I finally understood why. 

To be seen

Minari was the feeling of your skin,” Oh said as she explained that she cried during the gochugaru scene. 

It’s the sensation of realizing that what I thought was unique to me isn’t. On top of that, it’s the surreal experience of watching what I’ve seen happen in my life played out on a big screen. For example, there’s the scene of the mother cleaning her son’s ear with Korean church choir music softly playing in the background. And the scene where the mother greets a coworker, only to realize that she’s Korean, and the cordial yet friendly conversation that ensues. 

For Steven Yeun, who played the father, there was an additional layer of being seen by playing a father figure. He shared that he tried to pull from everything he saw Korean ahjussis, or middle aged men, doing to bring the character to life. But more than adopting the habits, getting into the mentality of the father was an intense reconciling of sorts for him. 

“We remember our parents through their suffering or in the way we miscommunicate love to each other,” he said.

Han Yeri, Steven Yeun - Minari
Photo credit: IMDB

The parents’ dynamic was something that Han Yeri, who played the mother, related to the most. She said the parents’ decision to jump into the unknown felt universal. But as a Korean national, there is still something within the movie that is nuanced, something she didn’t quite catch. 

Han as well as Youn Yuh-Jung, who played the grandmother, are Korean nationals, established actresses back in Korea. When Oh asked them if they knew what this movie meant to her and other Korean Americans, Yoon said that she saw audience members crying, but didn’t understand why.

And it’s not because the movie itself was sad. It’s beautiful, moving, and tender, but it isn’t built to make us sob. Instead, it’s a movie that lets Korean Americans have a catharsis of sorts, a way to breathe out.

“As a Korean American watching this, you didn’t realize you were sitting on so much grief,” Oh said, “and watching the film lets it go a little bit.” 

See also: K-Pop the Odyssey: A journey through law, music, and identity

A question of belonging

In an age where South Korean pop culture continues to get popular, it’s easy to blur the lines between Koreans and Korean Americans. 

Did I get emotional seeing BTS on the American Music Awards stage in 2017? Yes.

Did I cry when Parasite won all the film awards? Absolutely.

But BTS and Bong Joon Ho aren’t the same as Steven Yeun or Sandra Oh.

Bong Joon Ho Parasite at Oscars
Photo credit: Financial Times

Even Oh pointed this out, saying though while Parasite‘s wins were game changing, Bong also doesn’t have the same type of deep emotion that the Korean diaspora have. In particular, she used the word han, which is a word meaning a potent mix of deep sorrow, anger, and regret.

“The film speaks to a deep isolation,” Yeun said. “A desire to be deeply seen.” 

Bong and the members of BTS grew up as part of the majority population in Korea, especially as the country is infamously homogenous. They were always seen and always represented. 

We were not. 

When BTS and the cast and crew of Parasite did media promotions, they were rightfully labeled as foreign acts. But Lee Isaac Chung, the director of Minari, is not foreign; he was born in Denver and grew up in the States. By calling Minari foreign, it’s calling Korean Americans foreign. And calling Korean Americans foreign is calling Asian Americans foreign.

It seems like everyone can agree that Minari is a good movie. After all, it was one of the top ten movies of 2020 according to the American Film Institute, and has collected a fair share of awards. And while it’s good to be recognized for artistic value and storytelling, it’s also important to correctly understand who the film is about. 

Unfortunately, this misunderstanding has happened before. Last year, The Farewell by Lulu Wang, a Chinese American filmmaker, was similarly nominated by the Golden Globes for Best Motion Picture Foreign Language. Just like Minari, The Farewell was shelved as being foreign because it was mostly in Mandarin. By using language as a measuring stick to categorize stories, it sends a message that we don’t belong. 

“We need to hold our own existence,” Oh said. 

Minari holds the Korean American existence in a way that I’ve never seen or felt before. But the fact that this happened again makes us ask; who is foreign? Who is American? And who gets to define these terms?


Minari will be released theatrically on February 12, 2021, and on demand on February 26.

See also: We laughed, we cried, ‘The Farewell’ is the Asian family drama we’ve been waiting for.

Featured image credit: A24

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