Last Thursday, I was delighted to watch Minari at a private screening held at Dendy Newtown. The film had been taking the award season by storm, winning the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film and becoming a favourite contender for the Oscars with six nominations – Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, Score, Actor and Supporting Actress!
Based on the director’s own experiences, Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari captures the story of a Korean migrant family as they assimilate into farm life in Arkansas, in the 1980s. What makes Minari unique is its authenticity in the portrayal of its characters and their lived experiences to which many migrants and children of migrants can resonate with.
Jacob, a father who wants to succeed and be able to provide for his family. Monica, a mum who is trying her best to keep her family together. A grandmother moving away from home country and everything she knows to stay connected with family. Anne, an older sister growing up to be the model child of the family, aware of her cultural differences and watching out for her brother. David, a young boy just at the beginning of his journey to understand his roots and his place in the world. These are the members of the Yi family, who despite being fictional characters feel real and familiar. We see the character’s idiocracies in people we grew up with, known and even ourselves.
A migrant’s success is often based on how well they integrate into society’s rules. Yuh Jung Youn’s portrayal of the Yi Family’s Grandmother represents those who do not fit into societal expectations. Jung’s character barely speaks English, swears and gambles, making her the opposite of how the grandmothers are expected to act in the American society of the time. Meanwhile, parents Jacob and Monica are trying to acclimatise to their Arkansas life. They have anglicised their Korean names, learnt English and attend a local church to build connections in the community. Regardless of their efforts to embrace America, their hearts are still deeply connected to their home country through cravings for cultural foods, seeking fellow Korean-Americans for business opportunities and in how they raise their children.
Whether it walks away winning all six Oscars or none, Minari is a masterpiece of film that depicts the rawness of the migrant experience. It is a tale of resilience, love and discovery with a bit of something the whole family can relate to.
Lee Isaac Chung has Korean heritage and Minari is based on his experiences, so as a Hong Kong-born Chinese-Australian, it’s important to respect the uniqueness of Chung’s story. But even so, I found myself resonating with so much of what I saw on screen.
The perfectly understated performances of Steven Yuen and Han Ye-Ri as Jacob and Monica reminded me of a familiar trope: the emotionally distant or cold immigrant parents. However, in Minari, this emotional restraint is contextualised because so much of the movie follows their struggles: the stress of managing David and Soon-Yi’s health problems, the difficulties of running a farm, the strained marriage – all compounded by a lack of community and cultural familiarity with the Western world. It’s easy to see why they keep such a stoic face to others, because they have to – how else could they handle such responsibility? In contrast there’s the wonderfully endearing nature of David and Soon-Yi’s relationship – the two have the largest age, cultural, and language gaps out of anyone in the movie, yet there’s no restraint to their interactions. They swear at and prank each other, sometimes to the extreme: David deceives her into drinking his pee and she easily forgives him.
I think there are some interesting lessons from this: firstly, the cultural and language barriers that we may perceive as integral to connecting with our family are important but not as necessary as they may seem, as David and Soon-yi’s relationship shows. Secondly, juxtaposing the relationships like this highlight how they each play a role in the overall story. David and Soon-yi are only afforded the freedom to bond because Jacob and Monica take the burden of family responsibility away from them. I’ve certainly been guilty of comparing to others and lamenting my own family struggles. But through the power of storytelling, Chung spotlights the struggles behind Jacob and Monica’s strained facades, and in the process helps us all reflect on our experiences.
Then there’s the sheer screen time Chung devotes to showing the family in their regular lives – long slow-motion shots of the family out on the farm or doing day-to-day tasks at home. When it’s so rare to see Asian-Australian, or even Asian-American faces on film, it serves more purpose than just developing the story. Chung isn’t just showing us ordinary life for the sake of it, he’s luxuriating in it and acknowledging its significance, because these are the simple moments that help to normalise Asian-Americans and by extension, Asians Between Cultures, in Western media.