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Minari and the American Dream

Migration, social mobility, intergenerational relationships, and racism–all seen from the eyes of an eight-year-old.

We largely watch the world pass by from David’s eyes but each character is given a complex storyline. While we are charmed by David’s blissful wonder at the world, we are cognizant of Anne (his older sister’s) tireless work to provide care for him and their grandma. Though certainly not perfect, we appreciate grandma’s quick wit and endless patience for David. All of the characters are flawed and human, but they are also entirely empathetic.

Minari, directed by Lee Isaac Chung, is a masterfully simple story about a Korean-American family adapting to life in rural Arkansas. After parents Jacob and Monica immigrate to America, they discover that their financial and familial struggles follow them from place to place. They soon find themselves overwhelmed with work and their two children, Anne and David, so they enlist the help of Monica’s elderly mother.

The story, which is largely based on director Chung’s childhood, is told through vignettes about life in a small town in the South. While Jacob and Monica work sexing chickens, Jacob dreams of cultivating a farm on the many acres of land.

What’s truly remarkable about this movie is how essentially American it is. Set in Arkansas, we see Jacob struggle to make peace with his hopes and dreams while still needing to provide for his family. In a desperate attempt to achieve financial stability, Jacob sacrifices essentials like running water in the home. The rest of the family is forced to cope with their sometimes bleak reality with only the hope of a better life to comfort them.

Though entirely original and deeply personal, the themes are reminiscent of classics like Death of a Salesman in its exploration of masculinity, family, and the drive for a better life. Minari reminded me of how deeply entrenched in whiteness the image of the American Dream has become. When we break it down, the American Dream is a manufactured fantasy that very few can achieve. It’s no surprise, then, that the image of a white picket fence and a white nuclear family is the only picture of the American Dream. Jacob––and the whole family––are a quiet yet stirring reminder that the heartbreaking vision of social mobility might never come.

Minari, however, refuses to be reduced to a story of struggle. As an immigrant/first-generation family in America, establishing physical connections to the land can be incredibly challenging. American views of land ownership are deeply entrenched in White supremacy and the idea of colonial conquest. For a family like this one, connecting to the land is almost seen as rebellious. When Jacob begins working the land, it represents a resistance to the established connection between White farmers and their land. Later in the film, grandma Soonja plants minari and explains that the plant can be enjoyed by all people and can grow just about anywhere. This metaphor explains a universal quality in the American Dream––one that extends beyond race or class.

It’s so unique and deeply moving to see a pastoral story featuring faces that rarely grace our screens in any capacity. The film moves beyond the trauma that the family deals with and explores their inner workings––their hopes and dreams as well as their anxieties and fears.

Chung’s filmmaking is admirable because it doesn’t seek to condemn any of the characters; it is equally harsh and compassionate toward the family. Even little David is allowed complex emotions toward his grandmother who he deems “not a real grandma” at various points in the film because she is unable to make cookies and swears at the TV. David expresses ideas of internalized racism through his grandma. Though the woman is undyingly patient with him, David can’t get over the fact that she doesn’t conform to White family values. Through their relationships with one another, we understand dimensions of the family’s positionality.

Minari presents systematic issues on a microscopic level, something that feels entirely fresh and new. While we know somewhere in the back of our minds that the family’s socioeconomic status is tied to their immigrant and racial background, these systems aren’t directly addressed. Jacob’s relationship with his grandmother allows the film to explore ideas of racism without actually including traumatic scenes of racism. While there are one or two awkward childhood incidents of microaggression, there’s no outright villain.

Chung also refuses to reduce the South to the cartoonish picture of racism that we often see depicted in movies. When the family first moves to town, eager to grow crops on the land, Jacob befriends a white man named Paul. Viewers (including myself) may feel a lump in the back of their throats here, wondering if Paul would be an antagonist to the family. Instead, we see a deeply moving depiction of class solidarity across racial lines. The two men work together in almost complete silence, connected by a love of making things grow. Though their lifestyles could not be more different, Paul and the family have a meaningful and at times spiritual bond that seems almost unorthodox in a Hollywood film.

The story is so small in scope, we don’t even really know the family’s last names. The film is intimate and slow, but somehow never dull. There is a simultaneous feeling of calm with just a little bit of lingering anxiety as we watch the family live their day-to-day lives.

While I wanted this review to be absent of the political world it lives in, it’s worth mentioning that Minari has been placed in the “foreign language” award category at the Golden Globes. Of course, the award show backs this decision to exclude Minari from the more general categories with the fact that most of the film is in Korean. For a film that asks us to expand our idea of what the American experience is, this is an insulting position. In a country that has no national language and has branded itself as “the melting pot”, Hollywood has yet to recognize the importance of the beautiful range of stories that take place that deviates from the standard.

I truly cannot recommend Minari enough. You will laugh and cry and dwell in the sleepy peacefulness of the rural setting. This film will challenge your worldview and comfort you in a way you didn’t think was possible. Minari is a story about one family but it is also a story about all of us.

Emi Grant

Seattle U '21

Senior creative writing major at SU. Seventies music, horror movies, and the occasional political discourse.
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