Within seconds of watching the trailer of “Minari” last fall, my eyes were immediately filled with tears. I barely even knew the title of the movie or what kind of story it would tell, but I was so unshakably emotional. And, strangely enough, the same thing happened to many of my Korean-American friends. Looking back, I don’t think it was only because the movie seemed so well-written, or because it foreshadowed such moving performances from Han Ye-ri and Steven Yeun or that it looked so aesthetically beautiful. While “Minari” did turn out to be all those things and more, I realize I was so moved because it simply looked so … familiar. I could not help but cry in those first few moments because for the first time in my life, I could see myself on screen.
Directed by Lee Isaac Chung and premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2020, “Minari” tells the story of the “American Dream” and, more importantly, that of those who pursue it. Set in a small town in Arkansas in the 1980s, the storyline follows Jacob, Monica and their two children, Anne and David, as they move from California to rural Arkansas to start a family farm and begin a new life. Mostly taking place in a run-down, wooden trailer home, the movie portrays the hardship and fear that comes with raising a family in a foreign country, as well as the shifting — and endearingly entertaining, to say the least — family dynamic with the arrival of David’s grandma, played by the legendary Yoon Yuh-jung from Korea.
As a first-generation Korean American raised in the Chicago suburbs in the 2010s, I grew up almost thirty years after and halfway across the country from where this movie was set. Yet somehow, “Minari” still felt so personal to me. Whether it was hearing the perfectly broken Korean of David talking to his grandma or watching him witness his mother’s joy at the unbagging of gochugaru (red chili powder) from Korea, there were so many small details scattered throughout the film that are incredibly particular to the Korean-American experience that I grew up with. Watching the characters undergo an experience so similar to my own made me feel so exposed, and liberated, and vulnerable and seen — so much so that I couldn’t help but wonder in amazement if this is how many of my white friends feel every time they watch a mainstream American movie in theaters or how my parents feel whenever they watch an old Korean movie set in the era of their youth.
After having seen the movie twice (my family loved it so much that we re-watched it less than two days after the first time), I realized that, at its core, “Minari” is a gentle film. Layered with the beautiful instrumentals of Emile Mosseri’s dreamlike soundtrack and shots of young David walking alongside his grandma in his cowboy boots, it is a kind and honest film, warm beyond measure. But much more than that, it is a healing film. While watching the movie, I found myself strangely wondering — and admittedly even becoming slightly possessive over — to whom this film really belongs. Even within the immigrant narrative, I thought this movie was made for first-generation Korean Americans like me; it is finally our story being told, and through the eyes of a fellow first-generation director at that. But as I watched it the second time through and saw my mom laughing and crying alongside Monica who reunites with her own mother or bashfully tries to speak English at the family’s local church, it made me realize that my mother sees “Minari” as the telling of her story as much as I do my own.
I think that for many Korean Americans, we have a long-ridden desire buried deep within us to be seen, and to have ownership over something, anything, that we can truly call ours. And this film is monumental in gently unraveling that insecurity. “Minari” allowed me to feel like it was mine, something I could proudly hold onto and cherish without a need for justification. But, in the same healing process, it also reminded me that the immigrant experience is inherently a paired journey between both generations, and it is difficult and nuanced and lonely on both ends. It made me realize that my parents are more than valid in feeling seen by this movie and that this film — and the story it tells — is as uniquely important and special to them as it is for me. And it taught me that maybe sharing this ownership of the Korean-American experience is a very necessary and beautiful thing.
Even without its genuinely hilarious scenes, adept storytelling and striking visuals, “Minari” carries so much significance in its own existence. After watching it, I didn’t really care if it felt slow at times or if someone’s acting wasn’t perfect. The fact remains that this is an American film about a Korean-American family and is something that is, and will always be, so deeply special to me and to many others. I think I speak for many Korean Americans when I say that “Minari” — and even director Lee Isaac Chung’s decision to create it — truly feels like a gift I didn’t know I and many others had waited so long to receive. So, thank you, Lee Isaac Chung, for “Minari.”
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