Leaving home for a new land in Minari

Yage Wang— Staff Writer 

Contributed Photo

A unique story of South Korean culture quietly released in US theaters in mid-February. For many English-speaking audiences, Minari is an outlier and may feel strange to watch in theaters. 

While an American drama, the dialogue is mostly in Korean. Minari won the Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Language Film, arousing the dissatisfaction of many filmmakers. The director and writer of Minari, Lee Isaac Chung, talked about the film industry’s unreasonable criteria on language division. 

“Minari is about a family.” Chung said, “It’s a family trying to learn how to speak a language of its own. It goes deeper than any American language and any foreign language. It’s a language of the heart, and I’m trying to learn it myself and to pass it on. I hope we all learn how to speak this language of love to each other, especially this year.” 

Minari zooms in on the story of a young Korean family that has immigrated to the Midwest. They are faltering on the edge of financial pressure and encountering cultural and religious differences. Jacob Lee, the patriarchal leader in the house, upholds a dream of cultivating a piece of land of his own in the United States. His wife, Monica Lee, is the image of a typical Asian mother who’s usually overly cautious, family-centered, persevering, and pious. 

This film not only portrays the difficulty of Asian immigrants being accepted in the neighborhoods, but also explores the differences between men and women in marriage when looking towards their future as a family.

In Korean, “Minari” means an edible weed or herb. Speaking from my Asian background, people used to pluck edible weeds from the wilderness in the face of famine. Especially in the 1950s, Korea, China, and many Asian countries experienced political turbulence, which caused most of the population to suffer from hunger. Because of this, people of those nations learned how to survive by depending on the little gifts from nature. Nowadays, we still sometimes pick the edible herbs as a way of showing gratitude to nature and as part of our cultural heritage. This resonates well with the theme in this movie, in which “Minari” refers to the Lee family who uproots from their homeland and germinates in other places. When the grandma sings the song, “Minari, Minari, wonderful, so wonderful,” it’s her way to praise Asian immigrants’ dedicated spirits.

There are parts of the movie that made me sense a distaste from the director on gender inequality. To make a living, the Lee couple work in a poultry factory sexing the chicks. In poultry processing male chicks are undesirable and factories would hire workers to identify the sex of the birds. The unwanted chicks are often killed immediately. In a conversation between innocence and brutal reality, Jacob answers his son, David’s question on the smoke that comes out of the factory chimney:

“Male chicks are discharged there.”

“What is discharged?”

“That’s a difficult word. Male chicks don’t taste good. They can’t lay eggs and have no use. So, you and I should try to be useful.”

On the one hand, this short conversation made me scared. On the other hand, I also felt the tenderness of the director. As a male, Chung is keenly aware of the inequality in our society. Instead of loudly reprimanding, he chose a cruel tenderness to express the cruelty of reality.

This movie is an outstanding production from A24. If you haven’t watched other films from this small, delicate, and thematic company, I would strongly recommend other films from them as well. A24 is almost notorious in for thrillers with religious metaphors, which might explain Minari’s tragic tone. They’ve produced excellent, but R-rated, works like Midsommar, Saint Maud, and The Lighthouse are other recent niche movies that might whet your film palate.

Minari is undeniably a silent but powerful protest from Asian groups in the United States, declaring our existence in American history and posing questions about the American Dream on the big screen. It asks an intimidating question to its audience about language and culture: “Is English still the main spoken language in the United States and how will that change in the next ten years?”

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