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The Specificity of ‘Minari’

Glowing reviews of Lee Isaac Chung’s latest film have heralded it as “universal.” But such plaudits downplay the truly remarkable nature of this Asian American immigrant tale.

A24/Ringer illustration

What does it mean to call something “universal”? In film, the word is usually deployed in reference to the shared condition of being human: eating, praying, loving, whatever. Movies depicting so-called universal stories hazard in allegory and archetype, usually proffering some big common denominator for mankind. These are tales of sound and fury, family and love, death and loss, the trials and tribulations of cooking dinner; films typically designed to make you cry.

But plenty of movies might be described this way—Ron Howard’s male melodramas, Terrence Malick’s films about the transcendence of the human spirit, literally anything by Steven Spielberg. So why does a film like Minari, Lee Isaac Chung’s much-lauded Korean American immigrant story, need to be repeatedly designated as such? What does the promise of a “universal story” really mean, and who is that term really for?

Minari is Chung’s fifth film, though it’s his first explicitly autobiographical film, drawn from childhood memories growing up as one of the few Korean immigrants in 1980s Arkansas. The plot is fairly simple: Korean patriarch Jacob Yi (Steven Yeun) moves his wife Monica (Yeri Han) and two children from California to an unlikely piece of land in the Ozarks, with hopes of making it as a farmer. Minari is, in other words, the Asian American director Chung’s first explicitly Asian American film. Unlike Chung’s remarkable 2007 debut Munyurangabo, depicting the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide in the bustling capital of Kigali, or his 2013 urban fairy tale Abigail Harm starring Amanda Plummer, Minari hits much closer to home. Described by The Hollywood Reporter as “the most autobiographical film of this award season,” Minari projects Chung’s immigrant boyhood onto the universal canvas of what we might call the American Dream. And by all accounts, it’s a really good film, featuring winning performances by not only Yeun and Han, but also the children (Alan Kim and Noel Cho) and Youn Yuh-jung, who gives an endearing performance as their spunky grandmother. (“To all our grandmas,” goes the credit sequence’s closing dedication, in appropriately universal fashion.)

Minari doesn’t officially come out, in full, until February 26—the movie has been out in theaters since last Friday, and tickets are available to watch it on A24’s streaming platform starting this Friday, but its official VOD release date is still a ways off. Yet a chorus of acclaim already surrounds it, with near unanimous praise of its emotional verisimilitude, its naturalistic performances that show instead of tell. In an economy of relative underrepresentation, Asian American popular culture has often reached for maximalist expressions—and maximalist legibility—as recently evinced by the spectacle of crazy, rich Asians on reality shows like House of Ho and Bling Empire. In contrast, Chung’s family melodrama comes off with, well, a surprising lack of melodrama. There are no explosive confrontations, no declamatory speeches about the struggles of Korean American assimilation. If anything, the film is deliberately understated, formally restrained to the point of feeling, at times, unnervingly uneventful. Minari approaches something like realism, lingering on the everydayness of its characters (going to work, getting dressed, watching TV) in a way that feels, as more than one critic has noted, not only “authentic,” but also “universal.” “It’s filled with the specifics of Chung’s Korean American upbringing,” writes Glenn Whipp in the Los Angeles Times, “but it’s also universal in its insights into the resiliency of the human spirit.”

Chung’s film is one of the most anticipated releases of this season, not just for Asian Americans, but Americans more generally. It won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award in the U.S. Dramatic Competition at Sundance, and while HFPA foreign-language guidelines disqualified it for Best Picture at the Golden Globes, Minari nonetheless stands a good chance at scoring at the Oscars, perhaps even following in the footsteps of its South Korean predecessor Parasite in taking home Best Picture. Walking the line between ethnic particularity and American universalism, Minari is, in many ways, an ideal contender for the current awards season: an A24/Plan B studio indie that dramatizes the Ethnic American Immigrant Experience in a way that is both quietly moving and profoundly unalienating. To call Minari at once Asian American and universal is to call it culturally adventurous, but emotionally safe.

Chung himself is uncertain about the label of “Asian-American films,” as he puts it in recent New York Times roundtable interview:

“With [Minari] I intentionally wanted to make a film about this family and not try to make it an identity piece. I bite my lip a little bit about it—I hear the American Dream thrown around a lot [about Minari], and that could mean all kinds of things that I was intentionally not getting into with the movie. I feel like people don’t know how to look at films except through the lenses of the discourse that’s out there.”

The discourse surrounding Minari suggests the burden of representation that still haunts Asian American artists. Following the blockbuster success of Jon M. Chu’s 2018 Crazy Rich Asians (the first major film featuring an all-Asian cast since Wayne Wang’s 1993 The Joy Luck Club), there’s been a notable surge in Asian American film production. A new generation of Asian American filmmaking is steadily emerging, from indie productions like Bing Liu’s Minding the Gap (2018) or Sandi Tan’s Shirkers (2018) to the more commercial indies like Lulu Wang’s The Farewell (2019) and Alan Yang’s Tigertail (2020) to superhero blockbusters by Cathy Yan and Chloé Zhao (not to mention, of course, so-called foreign Asian directors who are popular in Hollywood like Bong Joon-ho). This new wave of Asian filmmaking entails not only more Asian American representation, but also different kinds of it. Yet despite the eclectic range of genres represented by these filmmakers, an older discourse of Asian American representation continues to lag behind, shadowing and distorting its reception.

In truth, Chung’s anxiety around how to portray his Asian American story in a way that doesn’t play into a preemptively scripted discourse around immigrant ethnicity might be the most Asian American thing about Minari. The hyperawareness of expressing oneself in a way that won’t be misconstrued—that won’t be immediately read as playing into stereotype—is an ongoing concern for Asian American representation, caught in the double bind of intra-Asian heterogeneity and the limiting tropes of American Orientalism. As Yeun recently put it, “Sometimes I wonder if the Asian-American experience is what it’s like when you’re thinking about everyone else, but nobody else is thinking about you.”

Minari engages a different kind of thought experiment—one that turns away from thinking about everyone else in order to try to imagine what it’s like to think about oneself. The film’s circumvention of cliché occurs at the level of narrative framing, which begins by moving the Yis from California (where there have historically been lots of Asian immigrants) to Arkansas (where there have historically been few). Minari might scan as universal to many American viewers, but its premise is actually somewhat historically singular. The subdued melancholy that pervades throughout, visualized by its empty horizons and underpopulated spaces, evokes not only images of early American settlement, but also the felt isolation of Asian diaspora. This is all the more vivid given that Minari is a period piece, going back in time to reconstruct what it was like growing up as a Korean boy in 1980s Arkansas, and, in doing so, to reimagine what it might have been like for his father. The difficulty of telling one’s Asian American immigrant story has much to do with not having a collective language while living it, even more so when your story takes place in relative isolation from comparable communities. Surrounded by such representative depravity, what can one do but reach for the available tropes—ethnic, universal, or otherwise? Absent other Korean boys to play with, David instead befriends a Southern white boy (whose first words to him are, “Why is your face so flat?”), dons cowboy boots, and tries dip when his parents aren’t looking. Like a lot of little boys, he has a special affinity for Mountain Dew.

If Chung’s film appears universal, it’s partly because it carries the generic traces of those who’ve come before. In ways, Minari feels less like the logical outcome of Crazy Rich Asians or even prior A24 indie films like The Farewell, but, rather, Ang Lee’s earlier 1990s Taiwanese arthouse films. Even the basic premise of Chung’s film (an ornery patriarch who struggles to adapt to his family’s needs) echoes Lee’s early preoccupations with Asian patriarchs. Meanwhile, the relative restraint behind Chung’s filmography—which typically frames characters at a formal distance, caught between doorways and thresholds—is resonant of earlier Yasujiro Ozu films that first inspired Chung to become a filmmaker. And like Parasite, Minari is a film about what it means to inhabit domestic bourgeois spaces—to have a room of your own that is not only livable, but also comfortable. When the Yi family first arrive at their trailer house (“It’s got wheels!” the children marvel), the space is shabby and dour, as reflected by the devastating look on Monica’s face when she first enters it. But over the course of the film, the trailer becomes lived in, gradually decorated, and even cozy.

Minari is a film with soft edges: Racial microaggressions quickly lapse into friendship, poverty looks wistfully charming, everyone has extremely good fits. Whereas Lee’s 1990s Taiwanese arthouse films involved explosive outbursts and tearful confrontations, the indie aesthetic of Minari is an exceptionally Instagrammable one. If anything, Chung’s film transmutes social conflicts onto its natural environment, in which the most dramatic things that happen in this film happen to its landscape instead of its people. The movie’s eponymous plant is a Korean watercress known for its capacity to flourish anywhere—a metaphor of immigrant perseverance that sits at the border of the family’s small plot of land, as well as the film’s plot itself. Inversely, the movie’s climax erupts like the displaced catharsis of its characters’ collective struggles. (The scene recalls Yeun’s prior work in Burning, a South Korean film adaptation of a Japanese short story by Haruki Murakami that is based on a recognizably American story by William Faulkner.) But even that calamity—one that will surely cause the family nontrivial material harm—is quickly folded over. The film concludes in a cliff-hanger presented like a hopeful resolution, with Jacob and David happily picking minari by the creek. Chung’s mise-en-scène is filled with scenes like this: the small, slight, passing details that are as authentic as they are eerily isolated.

The discourse around Minari—which embraces this immigrant story as a universal one—suggests a shift in Asian American representation, where Asians can simply express themselves without generic expectations and stereotypes getting in the way. But in rushing to claim the film’s refreshing universalism, critics also risk overlooking what makes Minari emotionally specific—what makes it historically atypical. Some critics have noted how Asian American immigrant stories have historically had to work hard for universal acceptance, but there’s also something perverse about now claiming Minari’s universal value in precisely how it appears to turn away from addressing an implicitly white audience. Even in writing this review, I’ve wondered what the conversation around Minari might look like without “the lenses of the discourse that’s out there,” as Chung puts it, which both distorts its reception and, as such, demands corrective accounts. The circuit between Asian representation and its Western reception may still be an impossible one to close, and whether the conditions of Minari’s success mark a turning point in Asian American filmmaking that can afford to be less self-conscious remains to be seen.

In a moment of more widespread Asian work—in Hollywood, in English-language literature, over social media, globally disseminated through a range of genres and platforms—we need a better language for these objects than the binary between stereotype and universalism. Minari might ultimately be, by any measure, a broadly accessible film. It did, for instance, make me cry. But viewers lauding its universalism also imply that becoming relatable (which is to say, relatable to Americans) is the ideal telos of the immigrant experience. To find commonality in the lives of minorities might be progress, but not if it comes at the expense of the particularities through which real universality takes shape.