Minari's immigrant story rides awards season wave
Buzz about Korean-American family drama builds as Oscars, Golden Globes approach
A father and family arrive at an empty field in Arkansas. Their home is a trailer up on cinder blocks.
While the wife surveys the brush with apprehension, the father only sees potential.
These are the opening moments of Minari, a family drama set in the 1980s. With the man vs. nature backdrop, the film feels like a classic slice of Americana. But drawing on his own experience, director Lee Isaac Chung reframes the archetypal story through immigrant eyes.
Steven Yeun plays the father, Jacob, who uprooted his wife and two children from their lives in California to pursue his dream of growing Korean vegetables.
Minari is a quietly powerful film that pulls you in slowly. And now, this intimate family drama is being touted as an Oscar contender. With the success of movies such as The Farewell, Parasite and the box office smash Crazy Rich Asians, it's the latest sign of Hollywood embracing a broader range of stories.
But slotting Minari into the "Asian film" category does a disservice to the specific story Chung zeroes in on.
Besides the heart-wrenching plot, the subtle magic of Minari is how culture is just one part of the landscape.
Yeun, a journeyman actor who has appeared in in everything from the zombie series The Walking Dead, to the thriller Burning, says he connected with the immigrant's perspective the moment he read the script.
As a young boy, Yeun's family moved from Seoul to Regina, Sask., where they lived for a year before settling in Michigan. While the Korean experience, including the casual racism the family weathers, is threaded throughout the film, he says it was the relationships that spoke to him.
"It really is a family experiencing a thing together," he said. "They're trying to uphold their part … and in doing so they miss and disconnect from each other."
As the Golden Globes and the Oscars creep closer, the buzz around Minari is growing. Kim's Convenience actor Andrew Phung caught the film at a recent Reel Asian Film Festival screening. Raised by Vietnamese parents in Alberta, he says he related strongly to the film.
"I've been there," Phung said. "I've seen my father and my mother struggle to make a life. The four years they worked opposite schedules, taking turns taking care."
Phung also recognized the tension: "The distance between children and father in an Asian family, this something that was so authentic."
Even though his path was different, Phung says he saw himself in a pivotal moment in Minari when the grandmother, played by Yuh-jung Youn, comes to stay — bringing the hot pepper, dried anchovies and other Korean ingredients that are hard to come by.
"That is such a universal thing," said Phung, "Where your grandparents come and you don't know them and they got all this stuff from the old country that they're going to make you eat. I've been there. I appreciate Vietnamese food now, but as a kid, I didn't want to eat pho. Just get me the McDonald's."
The title Minari refers to a plant used in Korean cooking and known for its hardiness. Like the dogged determination of the father Jacob, it doesn't die easily. While some events in the film are dramatized, Chung says he drew on the stubbornness of his own father, who uprooted the family from Denver to eventually settle in Arkansas to start a 50-acre farm.
As Minari enjoys a wave of critical acclaim, Chung says the key is being true to your own story.
"It needs to be personal in some way," he said. "I feel like stories about Asian-Americans, they don't have to define themselves by the majority gaze or the white gaze [anymore] but really stay true to who they are inside."
Immigrants have so much courage. I don't think I could undertake the journey my parents did 52 years ago. 🇵🇭✈️🇺🇸 <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/Minari?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#Minari</a> <a href="https://t.co/7Qi9nNNIL5">pic.twitter.com/7Qi9nNNIL5</a>—@ChrisCasquejo
As for Yeun, he hopes the focus on authentic, culturally rich stories continues.
"I hope we're all waking up to connecting with each other. Not moving past or ignoring the cultures and the specificities of where we individually come from but embracing those things … in a human way," he said.
"I really hope we're heading there."