Lee Isaac Chung’s soulful drama Minari is set to break records for Asian American representation at this year’s Oscars, over a year after it received rapturous reviews at the Sundance film festival and coming soon after Crazy Rich Asians and The Farewell made key strides.
These three films have become successive rallying points for Asian Americans looking for representation on screen and while they all tell family stories, it’s the ways in which they differ that count.
While Crazy Rich Asians and The Farewell used family as a backdrop for their primary focus on culture clash and identity, Minari flips that script. The film puts family struggles first, and identity second. Because of this, it becomes refreshingly mundane and more universally accessible, but no less powerful, and no less important for Asian American cinema.
Anne, and son David from California to rural Arkansas during the 1980s. There, Jacob hopes to fulfill his American dream of running a successful farm.
The first scene offers closeups of Yi family members as they drive past bucolic scenery to their new home, silent except for the soundtrack’s melancholy piano. Minari’s first dialogue only arrives when Monica steps out of the car, and mutters in disappointment at the mobile home Jacob has purchased – presaging a muted central conflict of personal and familial expectations.
That’s a world away from one-upping racist hotel staff, or exchanging white lies with your grandma using badly accented Mandarin. These openings ground Crazy Rich Asians and The Farewell respectively in collisions of cultures, with protagonists desperately ping-ponging between “Asianness” and “Americanness”.
Minari lacks that desperation. The film mostly takes it as given that the Yi family straddles both Asian and American cultures, and doesn’t spend much effort pitting one against the other. Jacob and Monica mostly argue about the direction of their family and marriage, not about fitting in with their white neighbors. Jacob struggles with extreme self-reliance and hubris, not his sense of identity.
That’s not to say Minari avoids intercultural conflict entirely. When Monica’s mother Soon-ja comes from Korea to help with the kids, David rebels – complaining that Soon-ja “smells like Korea”, and takes revenge at being fed traditional Korean medicine. However, David’s relationship with his grandma is just one subplot, not the movie’s primary conflict. Furthermore, this clash of grandson and grandmother is intimate, not epic. David simply responds as any child would to an unfamiliar presence, and quickly warms to Soon-ja before Minari’s climax – no need for an intergenerational mah-jong battle of wits.
Lee Isaac Chung frames Minari less in terms of identity, and more in terms of telling a story with broad appeal. In an interview with Deadline, Chung said that he wanted the film to shift away from discussions about racism, and focus more on exploring barriers and assimilation within families – as opposed to across cultures. For me, this approach works wonders.
Because Minari eschewed culture clash, I felt liberated to enjoy its family drama, and relate to its characters as humans, not archetypes of purportedly authentic representation. Though I’ve never been to Arkansas and don’t know Korean, the film still spoke to me. With Jacob Yi, I saw echoes of Breaking Bad’s Walter White and Death of a Salesman’s Willy Loman, characters that are not only quintessentially American, but also relatable for audiences from Colombia to Iran.
Movies that sacrifice universality for identity just don’t have the same appeal to me. Such films generate high expectations around their representational value, which then become impossible to meet. Though I share a home town with Rachel Chu and also have Chinese-speaking grandparents, the gaudiness of Crazy Rich Asians and Billi’s outspokenness in The Farewell still fell in a jarring uncanny valley next to my – and many others’ – lived experiences. As box office failures outside the US, both movies may not have been resonant enough outside the American liberal bubble of identity politics.
If Asian Americans desire “full acceptance” in American society – without having to compromise upon, or feel ashamed of their heritage – then films centered on culture clash are necessary but not sufficient. Audiences need more movies, like Minari, that tell universal stories and just happen to have Asian American casts.
This is because gaining acceptance isn’t only about having others know your struggle. After people understand your struggle, they must be able to relate to you as a human being – and see you as more than that struggle alone. Striving for representation solves for the former, but not necessarily the latter. Finding universality in specificity, as Minari lead Steven Yeun puts it, does.
Minari is not the first universal story that just happens to have an Asian American cast. However, it’s the first to enjoy such strong critical reception, and this has shined a new light on challenges that movies like it face. For example, Minari’s Arkansas setting and American dream narrative have made the Golden Globes seem even more archaic for blocking non-English language films from their “regular” best motion picture categories. By telling a broadly relatable, intentionally “all-American” story, Minari compels Hollywood’s establishment to question its narrow definition of “American” in a way that previous identity-focused movies couldn’t.
It’s tiring to have issues of representation dominate the discourse around every single Asian American movie thus far. Minari is so refreshing because it offers a chance to acknowledge that exhaustion, and diversify the conversation – as long as it keeps racking up awards and ticket sales. With a one-two punch, the film could not only push Hollywood power brokers to acknowledge the universality of Asian American stories, but also empower Asian American film-makers to transcend the pigeonhole of pitting Asianness against Americanness. This would encourage more universal stories, breathing room for critics to discuss such stories beyond their representational value, and, hopefully, greater acceptance of Asian Americans in US society.
Minari is out in cinemas in the US now with a digital release set for 26 February and will be released in the UK on 19 March