“Minari” (2020) Would be One of the Best Movies of Any Year. It’s Vital Right Now.

Minari is currently available to rent on all major VOD platforms.

During my brief coverage of the Golden Globes, I touched on the controversy surrounding the Hollywood Foreign Press’s (HFPA) decision to categorize Lee Isaac Chung’s superb Minari (2020) as an “international film” in spite of its U.S. based funding and production because the dialogue is predominantly in Korean. The HFPA’s decision follows in the appalling tradition of voting bodies deciding that films that do not fit in the narrow, white, and mostly male lane of storytelling that traditionally fills out the coffers of mainstream American movie-going must be thrust into the realm of ‘other.’ The Minari categorization is about more than a corrupt awards show making a major error. It is about the perpetuation of systemic racism. 

If you read those last two sentences and roll your eyes at them, thinking, you’re being melodramatic, I remind you that we are in the midst of a period where anti-Asian-American sentiment is at possibly the highest pitch since President Roosevelt’s repugnant decision to set up Japanese-American internment camps following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. For confirmation of that fact, look no further than the heartbreaking events that took place on Tuesday when a white man killed eight people, six of whom were women of Asian descent. The coverage of the shooting has prioritized telling us all about the shooter and his “possible sex addiction” and spent next to no time mourning the loss of life, only vaguely referencing the rise in violence against Asian-Americans this year before transitioning to bluster about how a sex addiction could lead to violence. It is a continued erasure of the reality that white Americans love scapegoating people who look different than they do. In a year when our former president played a major role in labeling COVID-19 “the Chinese virus,” the longstanding racism and hate crimes leveed at Asian-Americans has effectively mainstreamed. 

The HFPA’s denial of the fundamental American truths of Minari is part of the continued erasure of the Asian-American immigrant experience from American screens. It is heartening to see that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has done its part to rectify the HFPA’s oversights by nominating the film for six Oscars, but that is only one factor in the equation of recognizing the stirring and elegant way that Minari foregrounds the complexities of the Asian-American immigrant experience, and more broadly, to the ways that propping up unrealistic ideas about a non-existent ‘American Dream’ has real consequences for people pursuing it. Breaking out of a tradition of oversight by awards bodies and audiences alike, Steven Yeun became the first Asian-American actor to ever be nominated for Best Actor, while Youn Yuh-jung is the first Korean actress ever nominated for Best Supporting Actress. As Shirley Li writes in a phenomenal piece for The Atlantic, “In the 21st century, Asian performers have taken on more prominent and nuanced roles in film and TV. Still, as with other actors of color, when Asians are recognized, it’s for types of roles or narratives that voters find familiar.” She goes on to point out that Dev Patel’s Lion (2016) nomination, as well as Ken Watanabe’s for The Last Samurai (2003), were both from films broadly characterized as white-savior narratives. Minari is the furthest thing from a white-saviour narrative, and it is the way that Chung constructs his movie to be both specific to the Korean-American experience as well as universal in its themes of family and struggle that makes it a remarkably stirring and elegant film. 

The film is a semi-autobiographical retelling of Chung’s childhood. We follow the Yi family as they relocate from California to a rural Arkansas farm in the 1980s. Husband and wife Jacob (Steven Yeun) and Monica (Yeri Han) had lived in California since moving there from Korea soon after they married and have raised their two children, Anne (Noel Cho) and David (Alan Kim), stateside. After years just getting by on money made from sexing chickens, Jacob convinces his hesitant wife and children to make the move, but it is clear from the beginning that his dream of establishing a farm devoted to growing Korean crops in Arkansas will take more work than any of them imagined. While Monica works at a chicken plant down the road, Jacob enlists help in the fields from local outcast Paul (Will Patton), whose devout faith is a little much even for the heavily Christian community in Arkansas. The question becomes what to do with the children while Jacob and Monica work, a fact complicated by David’s heart murmur, a condition that makes even running too fast a potentially deadly activity. After ongoing debate, the family relocates Monica’s mother Soonja (Youn Yuh-jung) to live with them and care for the kids. 

From a craft perspective, Minari is pristine from start to finish. Chung directs with such purpose and grace that each scene pops with gorgeous imagery and a balanced focus on setting and characters. The Arkansas landscape is stark but beautiful through his camera and is juxtaposed with brilliant visual and thematic wit with the run-down trailer Jacob has purchased for his family. The cast fills out Chung’s frame with the spoils of ingenious performance. Every performer grasps a moment to shine, and not one of them is reduced to archetype or plot device. Han and Yeun are utterly believable as a couple that was once deeply in love but now struggle to make it through the day without fighting. We instinctively empathize with Monica because of how Han performs her quiet indignance, but Yeun matches her by expanding Jacob into a stubborn but lovable man who is desperate to be useful to his family. If anything, Cho is the only family member who fades to the background a little, but that is only because Kim and Yuh-jung emerge as the beating heart of the film. Their relationship is dicey at first while David is apprehensive of this old Korean woman who “isn’t a real grandmother” because she doesn’t bake cookies and swears, but experiencing them grow to love each other without reservation is thrilling. The way Chung places them as bookends of the Yi family, the young boy steeped in American life, and the old woman tied resolutely to the home country informs the thrust of everything else on screen. 

The ideas and themes that emerge from this deft filmmaking are consequential to every facet of the time we live in. Yes, Minari is set in the 1980s, but apart from fashion, cars, and occasional music choices, there is little that separates the Yi’s story from contemporary life. Chung speaks directly to the experiences and struggles that Asian-Americans experience, which should hammer home the fact that anti-Asian racism and Othering in the United States did not start with COVID-19; it was poisoning lives well before the 1980s. Minari does not offer sweeping speeches or overwritten examples to make this point, but rather injects the daily experience of the Yis with grace notes that display how they are kept from being easily accepted into their new community. When they first attend church and then stick around for the luncheon afterward, a young  white boy walks up to David and asks him “why is your face so flat?” to which David frankly responds “it’s not.” David and the other boy end up becoming friends, but the point stands; casual racism can, and usually does, exist in every moment of Asian-American experience in this country. It does not have to be actively malicious or violent to be racist, and in fact, it is the casual and ingrained nature of the exchange between David and the white boy that exemplifies how white Americans most often regard it as innocent. 

Minari also, vitally, is a story about the Asian-American experience that does not foreground violence and racism. In the same way that movies about the slave experience and violence against Black folks are historically the only ones to get nominated for awards, or how queer characters only get coming-out stories, Minari pushes against the voyeurism at the heart of Hollywood. It is the internal story of a Korean-American family that does not require a white-saviour figure or central violence to justify its existence. Telling a story about a family struggling to “make it” in America and learn to better love and support one another is compelling and powerful enough, and for the first time in awards history, a voting body has chosen to recognize that instead of dismissing it because the central family is Asian-American. The next hurdle is getting a broader audience to watch it. One of the realities of the pandemic is that movies are more accessible than ever before. Usually, around this time of year when Oscar buzz alerts casual movie-goers to an assemblage of great films they may have yet to hear of, it’s impossible for the majority of Americans to get to an arthouse theater in L.A. or New York. You can rent Minari on VOD now, as I did a few weeks ago, and watch it in your home, and you should. 

I am aware that having as many people as possible watch Minari will not magically fix the systemic and historically entrenched racism against Asian-Americans that exists in all American communities. As much as I love film and think it does possess the power to change hearts and minds, even the best art can only do so much. What I do believe is that Minari’s very existence and embrace by the Academy is a moment that can help catapult the ideas at its core into conversations that may inspire people to take the next steps: white Americans educating themselves about the racism inherent in the country or donating to and volunteering for organizations. Let me be clear, though: Minari and those who created it are not responsible for teaching Americans, and the film remains a stunning piece of art no matter the broader societal impact. Lee Isaac Chung, his cast, and his crew crafted a masterpiece, and it is up to us who watch it to champion it. I will end this piece by saying something I have already said but want to make sure you hear: go watch this movie. 

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