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[Kim Seong-kon] Korean immigrants resemble ‘Minari’


The critically acclaimed film “Minari” has enthralled international movie critics and viewers lately. This deeply touching film has won a number of prestigious awards already, including the Golden Globe Award for best foreign-language film, and the best supporting actress award at the 2021 British Academy Film Awards. At the 93rd annual Academy Awards in the US, Youn Yuh-jung won the best supporting actress award for “Minari.”

“Minari” depicts the experiences of the South Korean immigrant Yi family as they try to settle down in rural Arkansas in the early 1980s. Like many other Koreans who immigrated to the United States during this time, Jacob and his wife, Monica, find work sexing chicks at a poultry processing facility. Yet Jacob wants to have his own business. Thus, the Yi family leaves California for a rural area in Arkansas, where they can continue to work at a hatchery while Jacob buys a farm there to grow produce and sell to vendors.

Of course, it is by no means easy to make this dream come true. Farming is not an easy task for an amateur like Jacob. Besides, Monica is worried about their son David’s heart condition and their daughter Anne’s schooling. They have to live in a trailer in the middle of the farm, far from a hospital, a school or even neighbors. For Jacob, success on the farm is the most important thing, whereas for Monica, her family is always priority No. 1. Thus, they quarrel frequently.

Since both Jacob and Monica have to work at the hatchery during the day, they need someone to take care of their children. Thus, they invite Monica’s mother, Soon-ja, from Korea. Initially, David does not like his grandmother because she is different from his idea of what a grandmother is supposed to be. Gradually, however, he bonds with her and learns many things from her.

In the movie, Jacob wants to pursue the American dream. Like the settlers in the Wild West in the 19th century, he tries to dig a well, cultivate his farm and grow vegetables by himself. To his doubting wife, Jacob says, “They need to see me succeed at something for once.” He may sound like a stubborn man who is obsessed with proving himself, and yet this is undoubtedly the American spirit. Indeed, he talks like an American: “Even if I fail, I have to finish what I started.”

Jacob fears that he may turn out to be useless if he fails in his farm business. To his son, David, who asks him why people sort out male chicks, Jacob answers, “Male chicks don’t taste good. They can’t lay eggs.” Thus, they have to die. Becoming a useless man like those male chicks is exactly what Jacob is afraid of.

As for the grandmother, Soon-ja, she symbolizes the Korean spirit. Like the minari she plants by a creek near their home, she is strong and resilient. Minari endures well even under trying circumstances and so does Soon-ja. Koreans believe that minari absorbs poisonous elements in food and neutralizes them. Like the curative minari, the grandmother is useful and helpful at home, encouraging the children, absorbing tensions and lending a spirit of resilience.

Soon-ja encourages her grandson, David, assuring him that he is much stronger than his parents think he is. At the end of the movie, David can run, overcoming his heart condition in order to bring his straying grandmother back home. Soon-ja is humorous and conveys her wisdom to her grandchildren. To the children who fear the snake coiling near the minari, she conveys her wisdom: “Things that hide are more scary and dangerous.”

Meanwhile, Monica is the most conflicted character, and seems to situate herself in between the others. Standing between her husband’s American spirit and her mother’s Korean spirit, she is torn and hurt, and yet she manages to sustain and mediate the two despite the hardships she has to deal with. She even considers separation from Jacob, and yet decides to endure the ordeal together with her husband after all.

Despite the disastrous fire that burns all the crops Jacob plans to sell, the movie’s ending is not tragic. Like the minari, the Yi family does not despair but unites instead. It is highly symbolic that Jacob and David harvest the minari when they lose all the crops in the fire. “Minari” is a semi-autobiographical film about director Lee Isaac Chung, which means that the Korean immigrant family depicted in the movie did eventually “make it” in America, despite their hardships.

“Minari” has arrived at a time when racism against Asian immigrants is spreading in America due to the coronavirus. The film shows how hard Asian Americans have tried to settle down in American society and become part of it. Like the minari that Soon-ja brought to America, Korean immigrants are strong and resilient, and have survived and thrived despite a hostile environment. “Minari” thus appeals to all Asian immigrants to America, particularly those of Korean descent. 


Kim Seong-kon
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. -- Ed.
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