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Why Minari Is an Important American Movie

Why Every American Should See Minari, a Story That Isn't as Unique as You Might Think

MINARI, from left: Steven YEUN, Alan S. KIM, YOUN Yuh-Jung, HAN Yeri, Noel CHO, 2020. ph: Josh Ethan Johnson /  A24 / Courtesy Everett Collection

For many who watch awards shows, the foreign film category is a throwaway. It's a category made up films you never bother watching because the title has an accent mark in it and there's too many subtitles so you just end up picking a random one to root for at the viewing party when you're already a few too many drinks in and the nights about to end anyway. Minari, which won best foreign film at the 2021 Golden Globe Awards, isn't a throwaway story for the Americans like myself who share the same one, and it's definitely not "foreign" either.

Despite being in the foreign film category, Minari is an American film on every level. It was written and directed by an Asian American director, it was filmed in the US, it was financed by American companies, and most importantly, it's an American story. The fact that it's told in Korean doesn't make it any less so. And even though it's 2021, not everyone — not even the Golden Globes, who lumped it in with the international films — completely understands that. The reality that many are too privileged to acknowledge is that not all American stories, specifically immigrant ones, are told entirely in English. That's why this one is so worth telling and that much more deserving of its win.

As a child of immigrants and first-generation Asian American who grew up in a middle-of-nowhere ranch town in Arizona with four ducks in my backyard, my family lived the same American dream that the Yi family did in Minari (except they had chickens instead of ducks, and lived in Arkansas instead of Arizona).

If your first thought is how oddly specific and unique this experience is, it's really not. It's just never been glamorized by Hollywood. That just goes to show how blind our society is to the extent of what being American means. The American dream doesn't always take place in a big, accepting city like New York where you immediately find a cool BFF, and everyone at school loves your endearing accent. Sometimes, like Minari shows us, it takes place somewhere like rural Arkansas in a little house where you share a room with your snoring grandmother, and your after-school activity is translating important government documents at the age of seven because your parents need help reading English.

"Being the single minari in a field of sunflowers for me translated to finding my worth in a predominantly white, conservative school in a suburb an hour away from home, and growing up with only one Asian American friend besides my own sister."

It's a lot like uprooting a plant in the middle of a marshland and forcing it to thrive in the middle of a dessert, which in this film, takes on a more literal meaning. For the Yi family, who grows exotic produce to sell to vendors in Dallas, that plant is minari, the namesake of the film. Native to the southern provinces of South Korea, minari is a bright green vegetable that can adapt to many climates due to its short growing season, and is eaten by everyone from beggars to millionaires. It's also the embodiment of the American immigrant experience represented in this film, because it bears connection to the homeland, marks a new beginning once planted, and requires resilience to cultivate a fruitful life.

Being the single minari in a field of sunflowers for me translated to finding my worth in a predominantly white, conservative school in a suburb an hour away from home, and growing up with only one Asian American friend besides my own sister. It was holding onto my culture while clenching my teeth for the millionth time I was asked "No, where are you really from?" after my "I'm from here . . ." explanation proved unsatisfactory considering my apparently "non-American" features.

For as long as I could remember, I wished my family and our experience could be seen as "American" too, or at the very least that it could be understood outside my circle. Minari manages to do both. It shows that this version of the American dream is not only a poetic piece of art, but also belongs in a space as quintessentially American as Hollywood. It proves that the voices of first-generation Americans and immigrant families are valid and deserve to be heard.

The win at the Golden Globes is a triumph for all who share the memories and stories of the people in the film. "Minari is about a family. It's a family trying to learn how to speak a language of its own," Lee Isaac Chung said in his acceptance speech, while holding his second-generation American daughter in his lap. "It goes deeper than any American language and any foreign language. It's a language of the heart." Through his award-winning film, Chung unapologetically declared that language isn't what makes you American, and finally for the first time, the rest of America is actually watching.

Image Source: Everett Collection
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