It feels good to dip back into the 1980s and spend some outdoor time in rural Arkansas with a feature film about a Korean-American family working towards their American Dream. A week after seeing it, I’m still thinking about Jacob and Monica (the parents), their two children—precocious David and his more responsible sister Anne—and Monica’s unforgettable mother Soonja, who’s brought over from Korea to help with the grandkids and cheer up her lonely daughter. But the film also left me thinking about my own family’s immigrant origins, which, after all, is how I—and my husband and our two children—ended up Born in the U.S.A. (to quote Bruce Springsteen)
An old car—old, even by 1980s standards—bumps along a field with four people inside. The Yi family has arrived in rural Arkansas, after 10 years spent working in California. Up ahead is a sad-looking trailer, the family’s new home. Monica’s reaction: “It just gets worse and worse.” Jacob grabs a fistful of dirt. This is what he’s been saving their money for. Fifty acres of good soil in which he can plant a Korean vegetable farm. He’s done his research and knows there should be a market for his produce: 30,000 Koreans arrive in the U.S. every year, many settling in nearby southern states. But it’s Jacob’s American Dream, not so much Monica’s. Her priority is her family, in particular seven year-old David. His heart condition is a constant worry; their trailer home is an hour away from the nearest hospital.
Jacob struggles against water and weather issues to grow his vegetables, farm work that’s done in his spare time. He and his wife have paying jobs at a local hatchery, where they do what they did in California, separating baby chicks by sex. Jacob has a reputation as a lightning-fast “chicken sexer”. Monica isn’t nearly as fast, but a fellow worker tells her, you’re fast enough for Arkansas.
Last year at the Sundance Film Festival, Minari won the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award for Best U.S. Drama. The film feels unique, but also universal. Unique in the ways any ethnic/racial group appears different to others, particularly in a small community. Universal in the experiences that most families share: internal pressures over money or health concerns; moments of comic relief and pure joy; the forces beyond our control that keep pushing us back from our dreams.
Some of my favorite parts of the film: Monica’s joy when she’s reunited with her mother; the family’s love affair with Mountain Dew for its ‘healthful’ properties; David’s growing bond with Soonja, which gets off to a rocky start when she doesn’t act like a “real grandma”; an eccentric local man (played by Will Patton) who feels compelled to help Jacob with the farm. He’s a Korean War vet who seems a little off (maybe damaged by the war?) but he’s kind and performs exorcisms on Jacob’s land because the previous owner couldn’t make a go of it and blew his brains out.
At school, a classmate asks David, “Why is your face so flat?” Whether it’s simple curiosity or a form of prejudice, we don’t know, but the next moment they’re buddies and David’s invited for a sleep over. Anne’s classmate talks to her in gibberish after saying, stop me when I say something in your language. It’s cringe-worthy until Anne stops her, excitedly, to tell her she said something that sounded Korean, and it turns into a funny moment.
Jacob and Monica are frequently at odds, but Jacob reminds her that when they first met and married, they promised each other they would leave Korea and seek a better life in America. My family’s forebears did the same. My maternal great-grandparents emigrated from Germany in the 1800s and opened a bar in Harlem. The wife’s free soup simmering on the back stove kept the customers coming back, and they raised their five children in an apartment above the bar. My husband’s paternal great-grandparents left Ireland because he was a Protestant who fell in love with a Catholic and their parents disapproved. He found work in a coal mine in Pennsylvania but died of black-lung disease before their three sons were grown; she carried on.
Minari was written and directed by Lee Isaac Chung—his fourth film—and this one is semi-autobiographical. Chung is the son of a Korean immigrant who started a farm in rural Arkansas. Just as the son grew up to attend college and discover a passion for filmmaking, my family’s forebears went on to live their own versions of the American Dream. My German-American grandfather discovered he was good at boxing, which allowed him to travel the world as an amateur heavyweight champion, eventually competing in the Olympics. He became a NYC policeman and was involved with the Police Athletic League. On my husband’s side, the coal miner’s sons had their struggles but went on to lead better lives. The oldest became a high school physics teacher and the younger two—twins—became engineers.
The title of the film, Minari, takes its name from a leafy green vegetable used in many Korean dishes. Soonja brings seeds with her from Korea, and she and David plant them next to a nearby creek. They can grow anywhere, she tells the boy, and that’s the essence of the American Dream, isn’t it? Plop us down in the Land of Opportunity, and with determination and perseverance, we will thrive—no matter where we’ve come from.