A Review of Minari

Lee Isaac Chung’s latest release won Best Foreign Language Film at last night’s Golden Globe Awards.

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Director/writer Isaac Chung’s new film Minari tells a heartfelt story of a Korean immigrant family.

By Michelle Hwang, North Allegheny Senior High School

Minari, also known as water dropwort, is a slightly soapy scented herb that grows in small bodies of freshwater and can often be found in many East Asian households, mine included. It is also the name of the critically acclaimed film, written and directed by Lee Issac Chung, about the American Dream. 

Minari follows Korean immigrants Jacob (played by Steven Yeun from The Walking Dead) and Monica (played by Han Ye-ri), along with their two children (played by Alan S. Kim and Noel Cho) as they move to rural Arkansas in the 1980s with dreams of building a large farm filled with Korean vegetables. In the midst of the struggle and strife to make a life for themselves, Monica’s mother (Youn Yuh-Jung) comes to live with them, providing the children with a peculiar grandmother who plays gambling card games rather than baking cookies. 

From left to right: Jacob(Steven Yeun), David(Alan Kim), Soonja(Youn Yuh-Jung), Monica(Han Ye-ri), Anne(Noel Cho) (Josh Ethan Johnson (A24))

Filled with hope, tender moments, and the ever-present tension that things could always go terribly wrong, Minari leads its audience by emotion rather than by plot. The story it tells, the one about a couple of dreamers who immigrate to America with intentions of building something better, is one that is the backbone of the America we see today.

In the movie, Jacob and Monica make a living through chicken sexing—the process of inspecting a baby chick to determine its gender. This element of the characters’ identities is directly derived from the lives of Steven Yeun’s mother and father-in-law, who were immigrant chicken sexers living in rural Arkansas. The movie as a whole is an homage to director Lee Isaac Chung’s experiences growing up in America. 

After finishing the movie, my dad told me that he understands what Jacob is feeling. The belief that providing for the family is a father’s duty, coupled with the inclination to follow one’s own aspirations, are sentiments that my dad can deeply identify with. And my parents’ friends, who were raised in America during this exact time period, say they watched the movie with tears in their eyes and an aching sense of homogeneity with the characters.

As for me, it’s true that some of the characters’ experiences feel a little distant due to the time setting of the movie. However, other elements are so strikingly relatable, it is almost as if the writer delved into my brain. In one particular scene, the family attends a predominantly white church for Sunday service. While listening to the sermon, Alan Kim’s character, David, notices a boy staring at him. After service, a girl comes up to Noel Cho’s character, Anne, and speaks a slew of nonsense words, asking her to stop her if she says something in Korean.

I may not be able to identify with a 1980s lifestyle, but the feelings of being a perpetual stranger in your native country and being caught between two cultures are things that transcend generations. 

Yesterday evening, Minari won Best Foreign Language Film at the 78th Golden Globe Awards. Although I am so very proud and not at all surprised, there is an underlying feeling of resentment. The Hollywood Foreign Press Association blocks movies with more than 50% dialogue in a language other than English from being submitted for best picture, and because Minari is mostly is Korean, it was nominated under the Best Foreign Language Film category and deemed ineligible for the Best Picture award.

Lulu Wang, the film maker behind “The Farewell”, admonishes the HFPA for putting Minari into the Foreign Language Films category. (aceshowbiz) 

Let me rephrase that. A movie that was written and directed by an American, produced by an American production company, filmed in America with a Korean and American cast, telling a uniquely American story had been nominated for Best Foreign Language Film instead of Best Picture because 51% of it is in Korean. 

The nomination of Minari as a foreign language film represents a troubling narrative, one in which Asian Americans are forever outsiders, even if the United States. is the only country they have ever known. It is an idea that has become increasingly dangerous with the recent rise of Anti-Asian hate. This type of thinking festers within, creates bitter divisions, and eventually expresses itself in the form of words such as “Kungflu”, slit eye jokes, and violence against harmless people. 

I understand that the HFPA’s rules come from a pattern seen in past films where movies in a foreign language were from a different country. Nevertheless, this situation shows how outdated our thinking as a country is. It is time we revisit the question of what makes something or someone American. In a country built of immigrants (with the exception of the Native people who had their land stolen from them), does it really make sense to disqualify something from being American on the basis of whether English is the main language involved? 

Minari is undoubtedly an American movie. And the controversy surrounding its award nomination is an indication that it’s about time we expand our definition of “American” to better reflect exactly what makes this country so beautiful, its diversity. 

This story was originally published on The Uproar on March 1, 2021.