How ‘Minari’ Captures the Heavy Sacrifice of Asian American Immigrants
Lee Isaac Chung’s semi-autobiographical saga about a Korean American family’s life on their Arkansas farm explores the ties that bind and the elusiveness of the American Dream.
Minari opens with the Yi family moving from their home in California to a five-acre plot of farmland in rural Arkansas. The gorgeous, verdant lot is empty of crops, with a trailer home sitting squat in the middle. As the family steps out of the car, Monica (the family’s mother, played by Yeri Han) realizes this home—this life—is not what she signed up for.
The stairless entrance to the home is so far from the ground, she has to scramble in—the first of many sacrifices she makes for her husband Jacob’s (Steven Yeun) dream of starting his own farm. His plan is to grow Korean crops, hoping to act as a supplier for Korean Americans looking to cook familiar dishes. Once this farm is successful, he reasons, he and Monica will never have to return to working as chicken sexers, as they had in California.
Director Lee Isaac Chung’s semi-autobiographical film teases apart the fictions of the American Dream—let work consume you, and you might find a path to upward mobility. With enough labor you may find work that offers you more personal agency, your family stability, and your children an inheritance. Or at least the opportunity not to work as hard.
Obtaining this dream is, of course, especially difficult for working class Korean American immigrants in rural Arkansas, in the 1980s. Starting a farm only offers the illusion of control. To avoid building a well or paying for the county’s water, Jacob hand-shovels the earth until he finds his own supply. (He tells his son never to pay for anything that he can get for free). But the water line eventually goes dry. The produce order, from the grocer that the family was meant to supply to, falls through. At one point Jacob is so physically exhausted, Monica has to bathe him. Without a supportive community or close friendships, she eventually turns to piousness and superstition, believing her fighting with her husband made her son, David (Alan S. Kim), and the family’s grandmother, Soonja (Youn Yuh-jung), sick.
But Minari is also a tenderhearted film, one less interested in the generic vitriol of racism or displacement than inviting us into a household of people who are trying their best with the hand they’ve been dealt.
This at first surprised, and then delighted me. In watching films about Asian American immigrant families, I often alternate between two impulses: the pressure to find some universal, or at the very least identifiable, experience, while knowing that the story is, of course, only one version of it. I have become so habituated to the immigrant story as organized around trauma, nostalgia, and alienation. Most recently, I’m thinking of Alan Yang’s Tigertail, a beautifully filmed Netflix original where all of the happiest moments happen in a nostalgic past, with the modern timeline presented at a remove, in somber tones.
Instead, Minari casts an intimate gaze on interstitial moments of life, and makes a story that could be plausibly read as a tragedy instead feel more like a slice of life. The film invites us into a family's home, and the small, familiar gaffes that come from cultural barriers. The family thinks Mountain Dew is water from the mountains, and the children drink cups of it with breakfast. My own mother has recounted, on numerous occasions, the banal struggle of navigating the language barrier when buying groceries after her family emigrated from Taiwan to Kentucky, of all places. Purchasing with a limited grasp of the language is a great way to acquire salt when you want flour, or being misled into thinking of a sugary, children’s cereal brand as a health food.
Themes of diaspora films are all handled with intimacy and care. Mother and grandma reunite after years spent apart. Soonja packs her suitcases full of spices from home, and gently chides Monica not to cry over anchovies “again.” The youngest son, David, struggles to get along with the grandma who is an absolute stranger to him. Soonja eventually teaches him of the minari herb, the film’s namesake, which can grow and thrive in any climate. They plant it along a creek bed, at the outskirts of the farm, on land that was otherwise unused.
All the while, Jacob myopically focuses on his farm, increasingly at the expense of his family. Monica practices chicken sexing when she is home, so that she can do it more effectively at work. Soonja insists on contributing to household chores, even after suffering a stroke. Ironically, the impulse of constant toil is what devastates the family’s first crop.
But the minari is spared. The survival of the minari is a powerful metaphor for life as an Asian American immigrant—it can be read as resiliency no matter the climate or the value in using the plot of land that no one else would think to farm. But the herb mostly reminds me of the pure randomness of survival, and the cost of always looking forward. When scrimping for the future becomes the language of daily life, it is not so hard to lose sight of what that sacrifice was actually for. Sacrifice, instead, becomes an undercurrent—diverting all attention to that final win of achieving the “American Dream,” after which a new, better kind of life can actually begin.
But life happens regardless, stubbornly, as in the passing of time. Life is the slap of David’s cowboy boots in the green grass, and his grandma calling him a bastard over a game of cards. It is seeing Korean culture as a badge of pride, and Soonja bragging, “He’s not like that, he’s a Korean kid.” The film may not tell us what Jacob plans to do with the minari, or how the family is going to recoup their financial losses. But it does end with Jacob finally prioritizing them, and remembering why he dreamt of a farm in the first place.