If you’ve heard anything about Minari, it’s probably how it stars possibly the cutest, most heartbreaking, cowboy-hat-loving 7-year-old, Alan S. Kim. Or maybe you’ve heard that star Steven Yeun is on track to become the first Asian American Best Actor nominee at the Oscars. But, most likely, you know Minari as the film at the center of a Golden Globes controversy debating whether or not it’s American or “Foreign.” Firstly, yes, everything you have heard about Kim is true; he is as adorable as he is hilarious. Secondly, no matter how much the Hollywood Foreign Press Association insists that Minari is a foreign film, it absolutely is not. In fact, Minari might just be the most American film I’ve ever seen.
Written and directed by Lee Isaac Chung, Minari follows the story of the Yi family, who move to Arkansas to follow the dream of the family patriarch Jacob (a stunning Steven Yeun) of starting a farm. Jacob’s wife, Monica (Yeri Han) is skeptical of the move, which not only takes the family of four away from California and the Korean immigrant community they had there, but away from everyone. In Arkansas, the Yi family is living off the land in a trailer — no neighbors in sight. They are, for better or worse, alone, save for one friendly neighborhood farmer, Paul (Will Patton), and eventually Monica’s mother (Yuh-jung Youn), for company.
The film is semi-autobiographical, inspired by Chung’s experiences growing up on a farm in Arkansas, the son of South Korean immigrants. And while it isn’t “based on real events,” the people who inspired the family at the center of Minari are very much real. Chung’s parents still do, in fact, own a farm in Arkansas. And yet, the Golden Globes classified the movie as a “Foreign Language Film” nominee because it is mostly in Korean. This categorization might be technically correct, but practically, distinguishing Minari as “foreign” and apart from the “Best Picture” category enforces the idea that Asian Americans are not real Americans. It also discounts Chung’s family’s own American experience. The director has been pretty diplomatic when addressing the Golden Globes controversy, telling Gold Derby, “There are all kinds of categories that we have over people and we try to define people, try to define their place in a country, and I think it’s good when we’re being challenged on our categories that we set up, especially when people feel that those categories don’t apply.”
Putting Minari in the Foreign Language Film suggests that the immigrant struggle itself is somehow foreign, when in fact, it couldn’t be more American. It’s a cliché to say that the United States is a country built on immigrants, but it’s also true. (Not to mention the fact that the U.S. has no official language, making this strict adherence to the “Foreign Language” distinction odd at best.) The Yi family story is a direct reflection of that fact, and yet, the HFPA deemed it not American enough, sending the dangerous message that Asians are inherently foreign at a time when hate crimes against Asians are on the rise.
That’s not to say that Minari is not specifically Korean American, in the same way that The Godfather Part II might be specifically Italian American. The movie is informed by its characters’ Korean identity, but it is not dictated by it. In fact, the film uses the trope of a family settling new land as a way to ensure that the audience can meet the Yi family unencumbered by any juxtaposition to white America. The hardships in Jacob and Monica’s lives are not necessarily determined by a language barrier — both speak English well enough to get by in daily life — and the harsh realities of farming are a more direct threat to their well being than any racism in the surrounding area. It’s not that those issues aren’t explored, but they aren’t prioritized as the things that define the Yi family’s existence. Similarly, assimilation is not shown as a requirement of success. In fact, Jacob’s heritage is critical to his fulfillment of the American Dream, as he decides to farm Korean vegetables to meet the needs of a growing immigrant population.
This does not mean, however, that the film is ignorant of the harsh realities of the life of an immigrant, but it does so in a way that acknowledges the otherness often felt by immigrants without actually encouraging the audience to see the Yi family as others. The first time we see the Yi family in a white space comes midway through the film, when they visit the local church. There Monica, the more devout member of the family, isn’t comfortable enough with her English to communicate to the white congregation. Meanwhile, a little girl stops the daughter Anne (Noel Cho), and starts saying gibberish, telling her to stop her when she says “something in your language,” and a white boy asks David (Kim) why his face is “so flat.” The scene puts the Yi family’s otherness front and center. But because the audience has already gotten to know them free from the white gaze, we don’t see them that way. The audience has already accepted the Yi family as their neighbors, their friends, or themselves.
By giving his characters room to exist free from an overwhelming dominance of whiteness, Chung has re-framed the American Dream as a concept free from the pressures of assimilation. It’s a pity that the HFPA failed to recognize that shift, but Minari still could see an American Dream fulfilled. Voting for the 2021 Academy Award Nominations begins on March 5, with the final list of nominees expected to be announced on March 15. A nomination for Best Picture sure would make for a fairytale ending. And, hey, there’s nothing America loves more than an underdog.