Photo Credit: Jordan Schaefer/Shutterstock
When Parasite came out, I couldn’t bring myself to watch it.
Looking back, it was for the same reason that I – a philosophy graduate student at Stanford – resisted Asian philosophy for six years: I didn’t want to be a typical Asian taking interest in Asian things. I wanted to be an Individual and a serious Philosopher, so I dived into metaphysics and aesthetics long before I took up Confucianism.
When I first befriended other film buffs in grad school, we discussed the works of directors like Terrence Malick, Stanley Kubrick, the Coen Brothers, Charlie Kaufman, David Lynch, Wim Wenders. Akira Kurosawa brought a strange pride—an Asian director that was safe for me to like because the West had embraced him as an Old Master. But in general, I stayed away from Asian movies, even those that were being celebrated as the Korean New Wave.
There were also Parasite-specific reasons I was turned off. The trailer was creepy, and the Korean title– 기생충– triggers a visceral memory of the pink, powdery parasite-killing tablets I had to chew, not just swallow, as a kid growing up in Korea.
Even worse, a film about Korean class struggle felt too close to home. My well-do-to relatives from Korea looked down upon my working-class relatives in America, but when my family moved from Nevada to Seoul and eventually to Taebaek (태백), we were the proverbial 1% in the ex-mining town in the mountainous Kangwon (강원) province. I returned to the States when I was twelve, and attending a mid-Atlantic boarding school as a scholarship student confused me further. In a film about class difference, which side would I—or could I—take?
I finally saw Parasite during the last holiday season, and the exquisite mix of joy and pain it brought made me think that maybe I shouldn’t delay so much when the next big Korean movie showed up on my radar.
And that is how I, as a second generation Korean American, approached watching Minari: with anticipation – and ambivalence.
Minari tells the story of a Korean American family that moves from California to Arkansas. Jacob Yi (Steven Yeun), enamored with Arkansas’ fertile soil, prepares to start a farm, his own “garden of Eden.” His wife Monica (Han Ye-Ri) is skeptical but supportive, asking her mother Soonja (Youn Yuh-jung) to relocate from Korea to help with childcare. The kids, Anne (Noel Kate Cho) and David (Alan S. Kim) adjust to their new life with bilingual and bicultural finesse.
The film won the Sundance jury prize and audience prize, the Golden Globes’ “Best Foreign Language Film,” and was nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture. I was still cautious— was I ready for a story that might be so similar to my own family’s?
My maternal grandpa had dragged his family (of eight daughters!) from Korea to Seattle because he saw a better economic future in the States (the mistake: he had visited a mall during holiday season and assumed that the food court was always that crowded. Their deli didn’t survive). When I came back to the US in 2002, I had lived with my grandparents for eighteen months.
But nervousness aside, I was excited enough for the film to see it the first day it was widely streaming, gladly forking over the twenty dollars.
Minari presents lived-in details in a way that was familiar and comforting to me. I was excited when I saw Spam on the table; it was the only food I knew how to cook when no one was home. When grandma Soonja squats down to the earth by the minari bed, it reminded me of how I’d done the same to harvest ssuk (쑥), Korean mugwort. I was about Anne’s age, and I was living in Taebaek. I would bring plastic bags filled with ssuk to the local mill where they would turn it in to ssuk rice cake (쑥떡), a national (if old-fashioned) delicacy.
I appreciated the knowing portrayal of the shared childhood trauma of hanyak (한약), the bitter medicinal tea David is asked to drink every day. As a child, I surely resented my grandparents for recommending it to my mom (apparently I was too skinny). So when David glares at grandma and tells her to “never, ever bring it again,” I laughed extra hard.
I felt for Anne when she patiently dealt with casual racism, not even recognizing the occasion as such (“Can you stop me when I say something in your language?” says a girl from church before beginning to spout off gibberish). I saw a lot of myself in Anne— responsible, self-sufficient, looking out for everyone.
Still, I had to wonder: what were Anne’s heartaches? What did she get excited about? Since her brother stood for the director’s young self, it makes sense that she wasn’t in the spotlight. But on further thought, even this choice not to show more of Anne is one I can relate to: I was often left to my own precisely because I was the responsible eldest. There’s an old Korean saying that the eldest daughter is the base layer of the household (“큰딸은 살림 밑천”) — not the foundation, but the cloth that goes over it. I thought of it a lot while watching Anne.
The cinematography and soundtrack are tender and unobtrusive, adding to the understated feel of the work. The soundtrack is swelling orchestra, arpeggio piano, soft woodwind, guitar, and vocals, not unlike the sweeping views of the Ozarks we get throughout the film. The lack of melodrama in plot and dialogue are complemented by the lack of sharp sounds and editing, but a notable exception to the barely-there feel of the camera is the bath tub scene when Monica helps Jacob wash his hair after a hard day’s labor which temporarily incapacitates his arms.
Jacob, beginning to worry over his crops, tells Monica that she can leave with the kids should his farm fail—and at this point, the camera shifts, the focus slackens, and we get an angled view up towards Monica, inviting us to partake in her own emotional unsteadiness.
I like to read reviews after I watch films. I’m curious of what others thought, what I had missed, what other contexts might help me appreciate what I’d just seen.
Many reviews for Minari left me cold. Maybe I wouldn’t have noticed the shortcomings if I weren’t primed from the beginning to look for them.
The first words of the movie come from Monica: “What is this place?” (이게 대체 어디야?), but better translated as “What the hell is this place?” given the 대체. Seeing the discrepancy between the spoken Korean and the subtitle made me alert to what else might be falling through the cracks.
Some critics made observations that I agreed with—for instance, that the film stems from an unassuming desire to tell a true story filled with authentic details. But imagine my disappointment when a critic went on to mention Mountain Dew, chicken sexing, and paper-airplane making as the specific details that stood out. He must have meant authentic details of Arkansas?
At other times, reviews’ lack of cultural recognition verged on gross incompetence. One said that the majority of the movie was in Chinese (my jaw dropped). Another wrote that the movie fails to suggest “lived-in depth of experience.” It’s as if we saw two different movies!
There were so many times the movie seemed to wink at me with its knowing details—the hanyak producing a mix of disgust and gratitude; the grandma’s name filling me with glee because Soonja is a stock name for an older woman; the chili powders full of emotion (I once dragged an oversized suitcase filled with chili powder, anchovies, and dried seaweed through the cobbled streets of Prague to deliver them to an aunt). When the grandma calls David “pretty” in her rudimentary English, it’s because the Korean verb “to hold something dear” (예뻐하다) is the same word as the adjective “pretty” (예쁜). David, who’s more fluent in English than Korean, of course misses this—and so protests that he’s “good-looking,” not “pretty”—but those who know can’t help but feel a communion with the director at moments like these.
I wonder whether reviewers judging a film like Minari without recognizing such cultural details are akin to reviewers trying to judge a film like Mean Girls without knowing all the American clichés about high schools.
Reflecting on the movie, I noticed that I had been holding my breath. I had been waiting for the Big Bad Racist to come and make the family’s life difficult. David is repeatedly told not to run in the beginning of the movie—he has a heart condition—and I thought here is foreshadowing—he shouldn’t run, or try, since he’ll never make it as an Asian-American.
The conviction only grew when Jacob tells David that male chicks are burnt for being “useless.” But David’s condition improves! And when the movie concludes without overt racism— the closest being children’s well-intentioned but racist questions, all diffused without trouble— I was unsure how to feel about it. What’s an immigrant story without hardships from racism?
Then I realized that it’s an achievement to have told the story without focusing on the family’s struggle as immigrants per se.
Many of the problems they faced weren’t unique to their being Korean, and it was refreshing to see a movie about Asian Americans whose main problem wasn’t, well, being Asian American. Many praise Minari for its universal storytelling, but it’s also a specific story about a young boy’s summer.
Even the film’s title is emblematic: the Korean name of a vegetable becomes a symbol of tenacious confidence. “It’s a plant that will grow very strongly in its second season, after it’s died and come back,” director Lee Isaac Chung says: “And so, there’s this element of that in the film. It grows very expansively without doing much to it, and so it’s a poetic plant, in a way, for me.”
Minari shows that an authentic immigrant story can be told in the character’s own language, and without tired tropes. The conclusion is open-ended, realistic in its refusal of self-pity, and hopeful— much like the immigrant experience itself.
Watching Minari, despite my previous worries, makes me feel like an individual with a worthwhile story to tell. And for that, I am grateful. Wonderful, wonderful minari indeed.
Hannah H. Kim is a PhD candidate in Philosophy at Stanford University and an incoming Assistant Professor at Macalester College. You can follow her at www.hannahkimphilosophy.com.