It was 11 p.m. on January 14. There was still an hour left to celebrate Korean American Day, an occasion my Korean American husband John had not known about before receiving an invitation to prescreen Minari, a film about a family of Korean immigrants set to release to the public in February. Our code for the viewing was to expire in six hours. We locked in, even though it was a “school night” and I’m so glad we did.
Minari is one of several films written by, starring, and about Asians that have received accolades in the last few years. Crazy Rich Asians arguably the most mainstream, grossed $239M since it first premiered in 2018. The Farewell featuring Chinese American rapper and actress Awkwafina won the American Film Institute’s Movie of the Year in 2019 among other awards. That same year, “Parasite,” directed by Korean Bong Joon Ho, became the first foreign-language film to win the Oscar for Best Motion Picture of the Year.
What sets Minari apart is that it is, as Lulu Wang, The Farewell writer and director recently tweeted, “a story about an immigrant family, IN America, pursuing the American dream.” “Minari” received raves at Sundance last year, and is eyeing nominations in this year’s awards season, albeit some controversial.
Prior to this surge, the representation of Asians in American entertainment largely fell into two categories: that of total absence (Asians exist? In America?) or that of a one-dimensional cartoon (Long Duk Dong, anyone?). Asians were either erased or lampooned. The effect of this erasure and mockery on Asians in this country cannot be underestimated. If activist Marian Wright Edelman was right when she said, “You can’t be what you can’t see,” the implications for Asian-Americans whose stories are either never told or reduced to funny anecdotes bear out across generations.
My husband John is the firstborn son of two post-war South Koreans, who emigrated to western Canada with minimal English and zero professional connections in the late 1970s. They eventually arrived in Michigan in a conversion van whose wheel fell off resulting in a blazing roadside fire. They moved there to open their dental lab and to send their sons to college.
In Minari, the father character, Jacob Yi (played by Steven Yuen) sprinkles lessons of cultural pride and identity throughout the film to his son David (Alan S. Kim). He decrees that they are smart enough and savvy enough to do things on their own, and why would they pay people to do what they can do themselves? I expressed to John that I heard echoes of my father-in-law in this character. “It’s every immigrant,” John said. “You don’t have money, so you do it yourself.”
John said he wished he could have been watching Minari with his parents. Themes of pride and faith, as well as the sacredness of elders and connection to the land resonated with him. To hear familiar themes expressed in the language of one’s childhood is an experience I’ve taken for granted. My ancestors are all from Western Europe and English is my first language. John, on the other hand, is 42 years old and is effectively looking into a mirror and seeing himself reflected for the first time. It is an invaluable gift to anyone marginalized by a whole industry to watch the body language of Minari’s characters. It seemed like the actors observed John’s mother and grandmother for years to render such a convincing impression.
I have not seen a more American film than #Minari this year. It's a story about an immigrant family, IN America, pursuing the American dream. We really need to change these antiquated rules that characterizes American as only English-speaking. https://t.co/1NZbkJFE9v
— Lulu Wang (@thumbelulu) December 23, 2020
What’s more, Minari was instructive for me. Marrying cross-culturally, I had very little context for my husband’s culture of origin. When we see familiar dynamics playing out on a silver screen, though, it can be reassuring. The grandmother in Minari speaks openly about her grandson’s private parts. My husband intimated as much about how freely his elders would speak about the bodies of children. There is a discussion in “Minari” about American children not wanting to share rooms (true in my case until I had to share, and then I loved it). John recalled months in which his grandmother would sleep on the floor of his bedroom, with indefinite departure plans. Films are powerful vehicles that allow us to peer into the lives of others, but we often love them most because they reflect our own lived experiences as well.
The Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA) relegated “Minari” to the category of Best Foreign Language Film because its dialogue exceeds 50% in Korean. That this tale is so distinctly American, and representative of an overlooked immigrant experience, seems frankly othering, even racist, of the HFPA. If stories about the experiences of English language learning Americans must meet a threshold for being considered truly American, what does this say about our mosaic of tales?
There’s a moment in Minari when the Yi family attends a predominantly white Christian church. After service, the members mingle around the potluck. Mrs. Yi (Yeri Han) apologies to two women on account of her poor English. “That’s okay,” says one church lady, “We can teach you English.” While some may look charitably on the way this church embraces the Yis, that the members wouldn’t have offered to learn Korean to better understand their newest members seems a non-issue. The presumption of what is normative and easily learnable is determined by the white English-speaking people.
So it has been with our American film heritage. As long as our definition of a “foreign language” is anything other than English, we will always fail to fully embrace immigrant and indigenous stories. America is not only better for them, but it ceases to be America without them.