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Review: ‘Minari’ is a commentary on the American dream through Korean voices

(Josh Ethan Johnson / A24)

In an interview with Variety, actor Steven Yeun (who plays protagonist Jacob Yi) points out that “…even though [the film] is in Korean, it’s such a deeply American story and I feel like this adds to the catalogue of Americana … what I think we set out to do was make something very human, and relatable to everybody.”

“Minari,” a film set in the 1980s about a Korean family who moves to rural Arkansas in pursuit of their dad’s dreams of starting a farm. However, while chasing his dreams, Jacob Yi forgets to consider the needs and wants of his family. He is conflicted between building his farm business or prioritizing his family, causing tension throughout the film.

After viewing “Minari,” I can confidently say the Golden Globe nomination it received was definitely deserved, but the only thing foreign was the spoken language. While “Minari” was spoken in a non-English language for most of the film, thus qualifying it for the “foreign-language film” category, the narrative and themes of the film are fundamentally American.

Throughout my high school career, I have read stories examining the American Dream including “The Great Gatsby” and “Of Mice and Men.”

What I’ve learned is that while the specifics of the “American Dream” may vary, the idea that America is the land where you can pursue those dreams prevails. It’s in the name of the dream, after all.

Throughout the movie, Jacob Yi struggles to pursue his own version of the American Dream — starting and running a farm. Director Lee Isaac Chung examines the difficulties of chasing that American Dream through the lens of a Korean immigrant family.

In an argument with his wife Monica (played by Han Ye-ri), Jacob tells her how he’s worked so hard in California chicken sexing (determining the sex of chicks and keeping the female ones to reproduce while killing off the males) so he could pursue his real dream.

Monica, on the other hand, wants to move back to California where she and her husband had secure jobs that could provide for their family. The compromises and sacrifices both Jacob and Monica are making in order for Jacob to pursue his dream is all part of Chung’s version of the American Dream.

This idea is embedded in the core of “Minari,” and to overlook that and judge it as just a “foreign language film” undervalues the spirit of the film.

The struggles that each respective family member goes through are not foreign concepts; it’s actually quite relatable.

Getting weird looks because you don’t look like every other white person at church (especially in the 80s) is not an unfamiliar experience for Asian Americans. I cringed (but wasn’t surprised) at the “stop me when I say something in your language- ching chong…” conversation between a white girl at church and Anne, the daughter of Jacob.

As a Vietnamese American who knows two cultures and feels like she doesn’t really fit into one completely, I immediately recognized and resonated with those cultural clashes that Anne and David faced as Korean children surrounded by Western culture.

David telling his grandma she isn’t a “real grandma” just because she doesn’t bake cookies is a classic example of two cultures clashing that so many Asian-American children can relate to or have experienced ourselves.

Fundamentally, the story “Minari” tells is American. We as an audience have the opportunity to look beneath the soil and examine the inherent themes of the story and the cultural relevance of the narrative.

The nominee for this year’s Golden Globe for “Best Foreign Language Film” is a tale deeply rooted in the core of the American Dream.

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