What ‘Minari’ Means to Me

Lee Isaac Chung’s film took me through his past and into my own family’s story

Yeri Han, Noel Kate Cho, Steven Yeun, and Alan S. Kim, from the cast of “Minari.” Photo: A24

I’ve had the feeling of following the film Minari around for a few months now since the first time I saw the trailer last year. I guessed Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari would be different to me from just about any other film I’d seen from how, even those two minutes, evoked my own memories in a way I wasn’t used to. I laughed with recognition while reading Jay Caspian Kang’s New York Times Magazine profile of Steven Yeun, one of the film’s stars, when he describes this feeling:

When the trailer for Minari appeared online this past fall, I texted the link to a Korean friend. She said she wasn’t sure she could watch the film because those two minutes seemed almost too accurate, too close to some memories she had left interred.

Yeun stars as Jacob, a young Korean American father, his character inspired by Chung’s father, who has left Los Angeles for Arkansas in the 1980s in a kind of second migration, hoping to start a farm raising Korean vegetables for the 30,000 Korean immigrants he knows are arriving a year, a number he has very confidently at his fingertips. He works as a chicken sexer, which involves separating female and male chicks from each other in an industrial chicken farm, and his wife, Monica, played by Yeri Han, does this too.

There are no doubt many reasons for this exodus from Korea. But the repressive regime of President Chun Doo-hwan, increasingly the subject of films, like A Taxi Driver or 1987, comes to mind in Minari when Jacob says to Monica, “Remember back in Korea, when we promised to move to America and save each other?” It was a time of economic prosperity, but it was also all too common for someone to fall victim to the social purification project Chun had put in place. The history in Minari is regularly evoked this way, more by implication than explicit reference. Only when Jacob and Monica bring her mother, Soonja, played by Youn Yuh-jung, to live with them, does Monica talk to her son David about her, describing her as all alone, no relatives, no spouse or other siblings “because of the war,” which is of course the Korean War. And just when you might expect some pitiful figure, Soonja arrives, full of a brusque, hearty laughter. She does not cook but brings ingredients for her daughter to use — gochugaru, anchovies — and an envelope of cash. Soonja seems ready for just how hard this life will get, but she is determined to be happy about it. I experienced this like a lesson.

The film is already one of the most talked about films of the year, and as happens to many masterpieces — and I do think it is one — it has found itself in a controversy of a kind. The Golden Globes refused to consider it as an American film because much of the dialogue is in Korean — putting it in the Best Foreign Language Film category, where it did win this last weekend. It was just hard to celebrate given it included the humiliation of insisting we are American all over again. Perhaps never so humiliating as now.

I was the first Asian American at my school in the first grade, and the second Asian American student — my brother — arrived when I got to the third grade. My father helped create a group called the Korean American Friendship Association of Maine, a group who helped mainstream Korean immigrants, teaching them where to get a bank account, how to apply for a loan, get a driver’s license, and so on. But none of them settled in our town, and they didn’t go to my school. Eventually, a Korean church opened up in a nearby town as I entered high school. But I was a lackadaisical Methodist at best, and I didn’t speak Korean — my father felt it would confuse us and wanted us to speak only English. He had emigrated in the 1960s and had carefully eliminated his accent, speaking like a newscaster. As the prodigal son of his family, he would joke to me, “If you can’t understand your grandfather, you won’t obey him.”

A favorite photo of my dad from the 1960s. Photo courtesy the author.

I recognized the way Jacob walks, the same as my dad did, the same as the cousin who lived with us for a while in the 1980s; a cousin my grandfather sent from Korea to help take care of my father after he was injured in a car accident. He came with card games, board games cigarettes, Buddhist prayer beads, food wrapped in plastic wrap, slides he wore with socks, and VCR tapes of Korean television he and my father watched together. When Yeun did that walk, with his hands on his hips, the leg moving out from the hips in sweeps, a little like marching, I almost yelped.

Lee Isaac Chung said his family got his film mixed up with their own memories. I think a lot of us are having this experience.

Minari left me deeply moved. I enjoyed parsing the structure, the way it seemed to be a story, for example, about how all of the family members were starting over. It was also a dream about land. Jacob, the dad, even holds a fistful of soil and shakes it at the camera. He tries to raise his Korean vegetables in an American way that requires equipment, water he doesn’t have and all of his labor while his mother-in-law, Soonja, just takes some minari seeds from her luggage, goes down to where the creek looks likely to water them, and plants them there. The film becomes a low-key kind of competition, unwittingly, between these two methods of farming.

On principal, I have read whatever I saw in my feed by any other Asian American writer who wrote about the film. Jane Hu’s review of the film for The Ringer gets at much of my own experience of the film and what I liked about it; as did this review by Rani Neutill; the podcast Time To Say Goodbye with E. Tammy Kim, Jay Caspian Kang, and Andrew B. Liu, which makes an especially good point about the feeling of uncertainty in the film for the characters who are not at all sure this move will work out. There’s no easy answer to the question of whether or not their lives will be better. In addition to Kang’s excellent profile of Yeun, E. Alex Jung profiled Youn Yuh-jung for New York Magazine. Reading the two profiles together, you get a fantastic portrait of the film and the actors.

Kang writes his profile of Yeun as a kind of act of metacriticism, making explicit the act of writing a profile of a Korean American actor as a Korean American writer, and Yeun even suggests their conversations may prove therapeutic, which Kang agrees with. And I think it was therapeutic for me, at least, to read. I experienced moments of recognition while reading it just as I did while watching Minari.

Me with my parents in Seoul in the spring of 1968. Photo courtesy of the author.

Like both Yeun and Kang, I also lived part of my very young childhood in Korea. We had moved back there when I was nine months old, before a hopscotch around the Pacific, due to the fisheries businesses my father and grandfather were working on together. In the photos of my first six years of life, I am a happy and smiling kid in Seoul, then in Guam, in Micronesia, and in Hawaii. Only after my arrival in Maine do you see this dead expression enter my eyes. I remember watching a slideshow of family photos, something my family loves to do, and noticing it just as my brother-in-law noticed it.

“What happened to you, Alex,” he asked me, as the next slide loaded.

“We moved to Maine,” I said.

Yeun describes a moment almost exactly like this when he shows Kang a kindergarten photo of himself in Regina, Saskatchewan, included in the profile, where he is sitting a little apart from his entire class, and is almost the only one not smiling. He looks afraid.

Photo: Steven Yeun via the The New York Times

“If you look at photos of me in Korea, I’m like joyful, man. So happy, like flipping my yellow bucket hat upside down.” Or hanging out with a friend, he added. “And then you see this photo, and I look so terrified.”

In moments like this, I knew why I was reading so much about Minari. I was doing it much the way I patched together an Asian universe for myself back in my first days in the United States as a child. I grew up making an Asian American identity out of whatever I could find around me in Maine in the 1970s, starting with the Polynesian restaurant out by the Maine Mall in South Portland, the Gundam cartoons on TV, the comics I found at the comics shop — Lone Wolf and Cub, Akira — even the briefest glimpses of Asian culture in my comics, like character Mantis, in the Avengers comics, who was like me, mixed and Asian. When I got older I would find a minor character who was Asian in a story and just pretend the story, film, or TV show was about them, and write, in my head, their further adventures. I watched Lost, for example, almost exclusively for the Korean storyline. I made this scrapbook collage identity for so long I just kept doing it after I left Maine. I was doing it then because I was afraid, alone, and unsure of how to ask why I couldn’t learn Korean, which left me separate from the other Korean kids, and I had questions about whether this whole being in America thing was going to work out.

I had no faith in this country’s ability to deal with the pandemic last year. Each time Trump repeated his insults, his attempts to get his supporters to treat us like the virus, I knew he would not deal with it, and each time I was right. That was how he was dealing with it. I knew the pandemic and the violence against Asian Americans both would only get worse. So I instead spent much of the year cursing myself for not getting there as I watched friends in South Korea enjoying their lives, on Instagram and Twitter.

In a Q&A after the Minari screening I saw, led by Sandra Oh, Chung described the prompt he came up with for himself to write the screenplay: He wrote down his earliest memories and searched for the story there. A few weeks later, he wrote a column for the Los Angeles Times about it in greater detail, recounting a process that began in a coffee shop with the closing of his laptop, just listening to the people around him, eventually hearing the name “Willa Cather.” He knew who she was, just not so much about her. This led him to her work, and her famous immigrant farmer novel, My Antonia, which he even considered adapting until he discovered she would never have wanted such a thing. The whole column is a testament to the peculiar magic that can happen when you overhear something at exactly the right time.

After giving up on adapting My Antonia, he then tasked himself with writing down 80 early memories of his childhood and figuring out the story from there. I am doing it now to find my way into a new project, but also because I was interested in perhaps teaching this to my students. I’m not at 80 memories yet, but I am enjoying getting there. You can surprise yourself this way, as a writer. You can dismantle the assurance you have in relationship to your memories and open yourself up to what you understand the other people around you were experiencing. You let go of your idea of yourself as the main character and find the stories that were always there under the story you thought you knew. At a time when I seem to know too much about how other things will play out, unable to stop them, this process, with an end I can’t see, makes me feel alive.

Author of the novels THE QUEEN OF THE NIGHT and EDINBURGH, and the essay collection HOW TO WRITE AN AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL NOVEL.

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