There has always been a deep sense of discomfort about acknowledging issues of Asian immigration as American. This year, Minari‘s winning of Golden Globes “foreign language film” manifested such discomfort. According to one of Minari‘s main cast members, Steven Yeun, the nomination alluded to the rooted racism in Hollywood, and more importantly, what it means to be “American”.
The film Minari depicts the struggles of a Korean family adjusting to their new life in rural Arkansas. Upon its release, Minari immediately struck a chord with many immigrant families around the United States. Of course, in order to realistically reflect the everyday life of Asian immigrants, the film is predominantly in Korean, the native tongue of the Yi family.
As someone who grew up with immigrant parents from South Korea, Minari was a visual spectacle that left me feeling emotionally vulnerable and yet understood. As such, it was both shocking and hurtful for me to learn that Minari was considered not eligible to compete in the best pictures categories of Golden Globes; and instead, the film was nominated for “best foreign language film”. Though the non-Korean speaking audience of this film may find certain words get lost in translation, there is no arguing about the visual aspect of the film. The reasons behind categorizing it as a “foreign film” were telling of the constant struggles and stereotypes that many immigrant families face in the country. In the words of American actor Daniel Dae Kim, it felt like “being told to go back to your country when that country is actually America.”
In a CNN article, author Nancy Wang Yeun’s reaction is quoted: “It feels personal…It feels like the ‘where are you from?’ question that Asian Americans always get”. While the actors speak primarily in the Korean language, the entire film is set in America, focuses on a common American issue, and is directed by American film director Lee Isaac Chung.
For many Asian immigrant families, the film is relatable on so many levels, especially the interactions between the grandmother and the grandson, David: the strange knick-knacks brought back by elders from their home country; the stark generational differences; the familiar sense of feeling bonded through love and family history. For me, one of the most memorable moments of Minari is when David’s parents, Monica and Jacob, are desperately trying to save the crops Jacob has harvested tirelessly since their move as the shed was blazing up in flames. During the scene, Monica and Jacob lose sight of each other. They are coughing uncontrollably, but still manage to scream each other’s names. As a viewer, all I could think about while watching this scene was the mantra that many Asian families emphasize: family above all. It is obvious that the family’s experiences in America have created immense strains within the family and within Monica and Jacob’s marriage. Yet there remains a desperation to keep trying and work hard to get a glimpse of that American dream. That dedication and hope is incredibly American in itself.
The problem with labeling films like Minari as “foreign language films”, even if there was no negative intension behind it, lies in the fact that our society chooses to label something or someone as “American” according to certain preconceived notions. However, we have to recognize that the narrative of being an American in relation to one’s physical features or one’s ability to speak fluent English is deeply flawed. This seemingly arbitrary definition must continue to be challenged. As someone born and raised in the Tri-state area, there is no other way I can answer your follow up question of where I am really from. In order for these discussions to continue, we need to address situations like the Minari controversy and the overarching chronicle of immigrant families in America.
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Featured Image: Photograph by Josh Ethan Johnson / A24