What Minari gets right about being Asian

A South Indian take on the acclaimed family drama

Credit: A24/Plan B

Half a year ago, I had a conversation with a friend.

We were at a cozy Taco place at the main shopping street in Vienna, enjoying plates of sizzling food. I remember that it was a Friday and I’d just come from work, psyched at the prospect of a relaxing weekend. Maybe it was the balmy weather or just the fact that I could finally stretch out my legs, but I felt unusually chatty.

As a second generation Austrian with Indian roots, I’m used to straddling cultures. I know what to say,but more than that, what not to say. Generally, I don’t talk about my personal life, especially not how it feels like to be both ‘Indian’ and ‘Austrian’.

But my friend that day understood.

He was Korean himself and had faced similar expectations on issues such as family honour, loyalty and pride. Respect for elders is big in both of our cultures. So is obedience. But also self-sacrificing love, strength in the face of adversity as well as a zest for life long learning. We touched on all these topics without breaking a sweat, easily understanding each other’s family traditions as the topic veered from academic excellence to life plans and romance. I remember saying that love was always going to be a dichotomy because my parent’s approval mattered to me.

I still remember his face when I said that. He had laughed and joked with me about unreasonable demands and commiserated over my wish for autonomy but that sentence clearly hit him hard. All of a sudden, he grew pensive and said:’Yes. Yes, I know. You don’t want to-It’s difficult’.

There’s nothing difficult about Minari, a moving family drama with a ‘sunlit-streak of sentimentality’ as the Guardian aptly describes it. Based on writer-director Lee Isaac Chung’s own childhood growing up on a farm in Arkansas, it’s a loving portrait of a Korean immigrant family chasing their own version of the American Dream.

Jacob (Steven Yeun) and Monica (Yeri Han), move from Korea to California and work as chicken sexers, separating baby chicks by gender. They relocate to Arkansas with their son David (breakout star Alan Kim) and daughter Anne (Noel Kate Cho) in order to start a 50 acre farm in a small town. From culture clash to marital disputes as well as health scares, the struggle to make something of themselves to ‘leave for the children’ is tantamount in every truth-soaked minute of the film. As Monica’s mother Soonja (Yuh-Young Joon) arrives for a visit fresh from the motherland, the titular Minari herbs (similar to samphire) in her luggage, the shenanigans between her and David begin who only gradually warms up to the atypical swearing, cantankerous woman belieing everything a ‘grandmother’ traditionally is. Coupled with Jacob’s financial insecurity and Monica’s struggle to safeguard her family and build a decent Korean home complete with supportive Korean church, this makes for relational drama of the highest kind.

From the synopsis alone, you’d be right in assuming that it’s in the minutiae that Minari shines. As Jacob and Monica contend with which church they should go to and whether they should move to a place with a larger Korean American community for support, we are brought right into the microcosm that is the trailer they live in. These are questions of little import in a predominantly white society but growing up, which church I’d go to was a big deal.

For a Malayalee, going to church on Sunday is the social highlight of the week. And no, I’m not being sarcastic. It’s the one time you get to see all your friends, far-flung as they are, congregating in one wide, open space and spilling into the shady courtyard after mass has ended. For feast days, the wives and mothers bring samosas, uniyappams (sweet coconut and banana fritters) or vada (deep fried lentil doughnuts) which everyone munches happily while sipping on milky cups of chai. Children run amok, playing hide and seek between benches, the emerald green, cobalt blue and burning orange of their traditional clothes catching the light. The teenagers are sure to be found milling in their own circles, talking about school life, the newest films and planning outings while they are at it, phones always ready. There’s camaraderie and friendship and the deep assurance that you belong somewhere, even in a world distinct from the country you left behind so many years ago.

Monica’s concern at the children missing out mirrors my mother own concerns at the time. Growing up, our parents worked full time and couldn’t take us to ‘our’ church on a regular basis. We ended up fully assimilating into an Austrian church, going so far as becoming altar servers for several years until we entered high school.

At the time, that suited me just fine. The hassle of language classes every couple of weeks, extra catechism classes on Sunday’s and regular meet-ups with the Youth Convention seemed to be too much of a drain on my time. (Besides, I was more than happy ‘only’ being an Austrian teen at the time😄). Despite having mellowed down now, convinced she did her best for us, my mother is still adamant that we don’t have anyone to depend on in this country should the worst happen and that maintaining good relations with the ‘mother ship’ was always beneficial.

To see an issue that can appear minor but is actually far-reaching for an Asian depicted so faithfully surprised me and served to endear the film to me from the get-go.

What similarly works well in Minari is that racism is not ‘the’ major issue.

In her article for Slate, Karen Han points out that Chung’s film comes as a fresh breath after Crazy Rich Asians (aka ‘the Asian Black Panther’) was tasked with being ‘the ultimate filmic depiction of the Asian American experience’, given the lack of Asian representation in Hollywood.

Minari escapes that heavy handed responsibility by focusing on intergenerational drama with a sense of gentle intensity, the interplay of the comedic as well as tragic flowing seamlessly into each other. Differences in cultures do get acknowledged but only in passing. David is asked by a white boy in his church ‘Why is your face so flat?’ while Anne gets told by a girl saying nonsense words to stop her ‘when she says something in her language’. These interactions are childish and have little impact on the narrative as both children quickly go on to make friends with their new acquaintances. In fact, the value judgements go both ways as the family encounters Paul, who works with Jacob on his farm lugging a huge wooden cross on his shoulders. The evangelical who speaks in tongues is merely portrayed as an eccentric (‘He’s crazy’) but later on also invited by the family to share a Korean dinner at their home.

For those not in the know what life is like for an immigrant family, the fact that racism does not drive the narrative arc may appear insensitive. That’s a misconception. Of course, there is racism. How can there not be? But it’s not exclusively a barrage of insults and unfavourable treatment day in and day out, like something from the Jim Crow era. Sometimes, it’s unintentionally funny-like when the lady my father encountered in an Asian grocery store asked him whether he was ‘Native American’ after he told her he was Indian. Children are the best at that kind of thing. Whether it’s asking if you can teach them some sick Bollywood moves or when they are calling you chocolate (in Austria, there’s a brand called Kinderschokolade, literally ‘Children’s chocolate’. A prankster I knew in school used to call me ‘Inderschokolade’ which means ‘Indian chocolate.’ We used to laugh at the number of puns he could come up with on the spot.) A few years ago, I even christened a woman ‘funny lady’ myself for her habit of throwing holy water in church and prostrating herself on church floors in a mass of golden curls and glitzy. (In my defence, I’m not trying to be offensive. Eccentricity, in my opinion is testament of successful individuality-I’m just trying to make the point that immigrant communities like their own stories ‘of that crazy white man/woman’.)

Critics are quick to pick up on the fact that scenes in the feature appear like memories captured tenderly from Chung’s own youth. Minari teems with countless details like the huge bottle of Mountain Dew that is guzzled up like water, card games, TV wrestling or a home made exorcism replete with sprinkling of holy water and praying in tongues.

Substitute the Mountain Dew with Ice Tea, wrestling for old costume dramas while keeping the exorcism and you’ve got my own childhood.

Minari’s authenticity, especially when it comes to reflections on male patriarchy, pride, duty, isolation and loneliness has also been favourably remarked upon. This comes as no surprise as Writer-director Chung and main lead Steven Yeun (of Walking Dead fame and on fire since 2018’s Burning) bonded over their shared immigrant experiences. In an interview for Variety, Yeun addresses the idea of growing up ‘code switching’, a phenomenon that sees second generation kids shift identities fluidly according to their relative environment. It’s no stretch to say that the actor achieved his goal of preserving the authenticity of the experience by portraying the best of both worlds-a Korean sensibility tempered with Midwestern values, ‘telling his own personal history without romanticizing or infantilising it’.

Yeun’s heartbreaking rendition of a traditional patriarch/conflicted young man trying to make it big is electrifying, the single handed stoicism of Jacob evoking a latter day James Dean smoking in a sunset-draped field. Some journalists of Asian American origin who reviewed the film mentioned having their memories triggered by the singular way Jacob walks in the film- that alone is tantamount to Yeun’s ability to capture unsettled emotions, rendering his Oscar nomination for Best Actor well deserved.

Not all the buzz about Minari has been of the good kind. The film also caused some contention with regards to categorization. The fact that it was nominated in the Foreign language category (now: International Feature Film) of the Golden Globes,despite being made by an American filmmaker, being set in Arkansas and having been filmed in Oklahoma raises questions about how narrow the margins are when it comes to determine what makes a film ‘American. (The fact that Inglorious Bastards got away with having more than 50% of the dialogue spoken in French and German seems poignant in contrast.)

Considering that Minari inspired both laughter and tears in a predominantly white audience upon its 2020 Sundance debut, the universal appeal of the aspirational story against all existential odds seems a given. The continuing popularity of Steinbeck’s 1930 Dustbowl narrative The Grapes of Wrath, most recently followed up by Jess Walter’s The Cold Millions speak of the way in which the struggle to survive will always retain the attention of an audience. Calling Minari an ‘American epic of intimate form’ seems fitting, considering the fact that Chung was inspired Willa Cather’s My Antonia, a frontier tale about a boy who grows up on a Nebraska farm and falls in love with a girl coming from an immigrant background. As a story detailing American frontier life and the difficulties of remote farming, Cather is unique in not fixating on the foreign nature of her characters, treating them as part and parcel of American culture.

Minari takes a page out of the same book by foregoing the dichotomy of different cultures in favour of focusing on the story of one family caught between the pitfalls of entrepreneurship, self-realisation and family intimacy. The major conflict is whether Jacob and Monica’s marriage will hold juxtaposed against Jacob’s wish to build his own Garden of Eden to provide for his family, come what may. White characters only appear in the periphery and white value judgements do not matter as the protagonists are too wrapped up in their own drama to pay much attention on the way ‘conventional’ society views them.

Resilience, symbolised by the minari plant, a herb belonging to both ‘pauper and millionaire alike’ and able to grow anywhere comes as the one of the few metaphors in the film about what it means to be ‘Korean’.

David and Jacob visit minari growing near creek, Credit: A24/Plan B

The modesty Minari is imbued with has made many assert that there are few movies of a similar bent-comparisons have been made to the low key family dramas of Japanese legends Hirokazu Koreda and Yasujirō Ozu. The scarcity of comparisons on offer makes the white narrative frame even more obvious and throws up questions on the appropriateness of comparing all filmmakers of Asian descent to each other. From the feel alone, especially the vibe of appreciating the small moments in life, popular K-drama Encounter seems to come the closest.

Whenever I want to gratify my inner child, I’ll know where to turn to now cinematically. Because the gentle tranquility in which sun soaked meadows are rendered also offers up the most complex family dynamics with a compassionate lens. I didn’t think I’d see such a thoughtful exploration of the threat of child abuse in immigrant homes, for instance.

‘Getting hurt is all part of growing up’ is how grandmother Soonja wisely says.

As we see a son look up to his father as an invincible hero and as we see a family who won’t stop believing in each other, no matter the cost, ready to live without no running water or electricity, we are gently reminded of what a sense of home is.

Family sleeping in one dog pile, Credit: A24/Plan B

Home is not a place, a piece of land or even your shared heritage-it’s the people who you wake up to each day. By navigating and testing the bonds to each other, a home is erected.

Korean-American writer Min Jin Lee wrote an essay called ‘Stonehenge’ for the New Yorker in 2019. I like to return to it when I feel somewhat displaced. She talks of attending a seminar with a group of English majors. They are the literary type-either editors at the Yale Daily News or plain English majors. All of them are white. She writes how they are supposed to critique each others work and how she fell silent when one classmate read her piece in which evangelical Christians consistently shout ‘Hallelujah’ or ‘Praise the Lord!’. Church to Lee was a place ‘to show off a new dress or meet friends’. It’s always been the same to me, a space for community as well as worship as I mentioned previously. But the breakout moment for the now acclaimed author was when she asked what Stonehenge was and a row of eyes swivels to stare at her.

I’ve had a similar experience of my own in University. The only difference was that I’d known something none of the others had. It was a journalism research study class. We were learning about methodologies, frameworks for writing scientific studies. My professor liked to mix things up when the subject got to be a bit dry. I relished his asides because they were invariably astute and wry comments either about his own experiences as a Nigerian journalist or questions put to us that allowed us to go off on a tangent. One day, he asked:’How many of you have experienced an electricity cut in your house?’ I put up my hand, sure of the fact that it would go under in a sea of hands. Surprisingly, I was the only one. As I looked from one white face to another, I was stumped. Was it really so uncommon an experience?

Growing up, trips to India were compulsory. Other kids went for school skiing trips or camping at the lakes or for foreign exchange trips-we went to Kerala. My parents, usually so strict when it came to attendance, invariably wrangled our school’s consent to opt out of these experiences in favour of accompanying them to India.

We have a house there, marble tiered with four bathrooms. Intricate woodwork on doors that once locked can barely be opened, aquamarine toilet seats that are not screwed properly and a huge oval glass table like something out of a period drama are some of the memories I associate with the place. It was safe to say that our time there was a bit of a hit and miss situation. As we went during monsoon season, anytime the rain pattered down hard, we’d be out of electricity. Crowding around emergency lights, watching bluebottles frying themselves to a crisp became a past time of sorts.

When the children in Minari have to get their own water from the creek, I felt empathy. For us, it was a well on our property. You’d lug the water and store it in buckets, enough to take a shower, cook as well as drink. I learned how to flush a toilet when the mechanism doesn’t work.

Some of these habits die hard which is why, up to this day, I sleep with a bedside lamp under my pillow. I used to whine about these things but they would come to stand me in good stead when I went away to study.

Suddenly, I was living in houses where water trickled from the pipes rather than came in a stream. Where the spray would invariably turn cold unless I filled a bucket beforehand with warm water.

I’m not ashamed to say that for a year in student housing, I showered with a bucket.

In homage to the waste burning in Minari, I confess-yes, I’ve done that too.

People don’t stop to think about how great a luxury the simple convenience of a functioning municipal waste disposal system is. I’ve never had to myself until I was confronted with taking care of the situation myself because the ‘government services can’t always be relied on’. In the sweltering heat, my father would build a huge bonfire in our yard, the smoke coming off acrid as the plastic waste started to catch. He’d call me so we could both feed the flames and watch the fire, making sure it didn’t grow overhand. Years later, I’d do the same faced with the prospect of having to wait another two weeks for the garbage disposal team to come, confronted with an overflow that someone had illegally dumped in our waste basket.

For me, these incidents just constitute a normal part of life but Minari shows me that they are an experience as well, one I’m proud to have lived through. As celebrations of the small moments that make life special go, this is a treat that’s hard to beat.


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Photojournalist and narrative non-fiction writer

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