Issue 002  |  Spring 2021 | Review


Renting the American Dream



by Lakshmi Padmanabhan 








Minari (2020). Photo by Josh Ethan Johnson. Image courtesy of A24.




When my plane from Chennai touched down at Newark airport, I was greeted by some of my mother’s childhood friends whom I’d never met, after a long flight to a country I’d never seen. Looking out of the car in the evening light, as they drove me to their home in a Jersey suburb, I listened to their American English accents mixed with the more familiar Malayalam and Tamil words of the world I had just left behind. We drove down a mostly empty stretch of highway, which eventually gave way to a cul-de-sac dotted with houses set at discreet distances from each other, separated by their lush green lawns. After a lifetime lived in cramped apartments drowning in city noise, the eerie quiet of the dead-end street seemed like the edge of a world, populated by no one but us. The memory of experiencing this well-kept suburb of New Jersey as a wild and empty place is now tinged with the embarrassment of recognizing my naivete, but at that moment I needed it to survive the inarticulate terror of having left behind everything I’d ever known for the hope of something slightly better.

Isaac Lee Chung’s new film, Minari (2020), dragged these hazy memories of arrival and the attendant fears of unbelonging out of me as I watched the Yi family navigate their own entry into the shell game of middle-class America. Within its first few minutes, the feature evokes the ambivalence of new beginnings as Monica Yi (Yeri Han) drives her children, David (Alan Kim) and Anne (Noel Kate Cho), in their car. The trio follows close behind Monica’s husband, Jacob (Steven Yeun), who guides his truck toward their new life in rural Arkansas. Jacob’s truck bears a logo that reads, “Cather Rentals,” perhaps in reference to the American novelist, Willa Cather, whose narratives of pastoral life on the Great Plains have provided some inspiration for this film.1 For Jacob, who has spent a decade working in chicken factories in California, their new beginning holds the possibility of middle-class comforts, including a plot of land to call his own—hence the move to this unidentified bit of land in the Ozarks, which he describes as the “best dirt in America.” Jacob begins the film echoing Cather’s dream of a “cosmopolitan” rural heartland in the United States, a hopeful vision of prosperity fueled by immigrant labor.2 However, the reality for the Yis is that this dream is a rental, one that doesn’t fit the shape of their collective needs.

In Jacob’s view, Koreans will soon be moving to Arkansas, and he will be there to greet them with homegrown Korean vegetables for sale. Monica’s dreams about their future are less explicitly stated, but they certainly didn’t include what she’s faced with when they arrive at their destination: a shabby mobile home propped up by cinderblocks. While Jacob can only see a potential garden of Eden when he looks out at the empty field that they’ve poured their savings into, Monica faces the derelict shelter with exasperation that turns into simmering anger. As the narrative progresses, these fissures between Jacob’s and Monica’s realities continue to grow into heavy silences and gestures of thwarted intimacy, erupting in nightly fights that circle the drain of their rapidly emptying bank account. Yet the jagged edges of these emotional conflicts appear a little softer in the cozy home they manage to build together, and the earth-shattering tragedy they endure at the end appears to dissipate a little as they fall asleep on the living room floor in the aftermath.



[T]he reality for the Yis is that this dream is a rental, one that doesn’t fit the shape of their collective needs. 


Minari, Chung’s fifth feature, draws inspiration from his own childhood in rural Arkansas, and he is careful to build a world that is peppered with closely observed details of life in a Korean immigrant household without the didacticism of trying to make it a representative story. It is, of course, hard to draw any generalizations about Korean life in rural Arkansas from this film because there isn’t such community to be found for the Yis. Yet they are indelibly marked by the specificity of national origins, because much of the dialogue is in Korean. This fact had already led to some controversy before the film’s release, because it was only allowed to compete in the Best Foreign Language Film category at this year’s Golden Globes (which it won). The Hollywood Foreign Press Association is a notoriously secretive collective3, with a small, scandal-ridden membership4, many of whom appear to be quite out of touch with contemporary media journalism. So it is unsurprising that they hold some very myopic views about “American” cinema and that Minari, with its bilingual script and mostly Asian and Asian American cast, is only legible to them as a “foreign film.” But that whole debate has once again drawn attention to a banal yet violent truth: that language is a boundary of racial difference and national belonging.

Chung—and the Yis—already know this about life in America. And the film reminds us of this lived reality when the Yis arrive at a church service about halfway through the film. A series of vignettes reveal racially fraught exchanges with the locals: David makes friends with one of the white boys, whose first words to him are, “Why is your face so flat?” Meanwhile, Anne patiently responds to a young white girl spewing racist gibberish who hopes to inadvertently utter a word of Korean. These moments are distinctly unremarkable, framed mostly in medium-wide shots using a long-focus lens that evoke a politely distanced observational aesthetic, in lieu of the conventional close-ups and quick cuts often used to depict interpersonal conflict. Chung deploys this careful visual grammar to capture many of the daily horrors that bubble and blister throughout the film.   



Minari (2020). Photo by Melissa Lukenbaugh. Image courtesy of A24.



Early reviews of Minari have called it “gentle,”5 praising it for narrating a universal story.6 Perhaps this is because of the film’s soft lighting, subtle edits, and cinéma vérité approach to confrontation—or maybe its real warmth between characters, even when they’re in the middle of intense fights. But to think of this as a warm, fuzzy ride is only possible if you haven’t watched his first feature, the brutal yet subdued Munyurangabo (2007), set in Rwanda soon after the genocide. In that film, Chung worked with nonprofessional local actors and a loosely fictional script to tell the story of a tense friendship between two boys, one Hutu (Munyurangabo, played by Jeff Rutagengwa) and another Tutsi (Sangwa, played by Eric Ndorunkundiye), as they travel together to the villages they left behind, one seeking to avenge the death of his father and the other to reunite with his family. Along the way, they have to deal with the communal tensions that simmer beneath the surface of their relationships with each other and their families. Munyurangabo is notably the first narrative feature shot entirely in Kinyarwanda, a language that Chung doesn’t speak. Perhaps this fact will help dispel any easy judgements about Chung as a filmmaker committed to telling “universal” stories from his own Asian American experience.

Despite being set worlds away, Minari brings a similar sentiment of life in the ongoing aftermath of unspoken trauma to the characters of Jacob and Monica, who have left all they know behind to shelter in a tiny trailer and try to start again. While they remain tight-lipped about what they had to endure to immigrate to the United States, the peripheral references to the Korean War and United States military interventionism in East Asia are apparent even in Minaris rural Arkansas town.7 This is most explicit in the character of Paul (Will Patton), a white Korean war veteran whose friendly but strange overtures turn into an enduring relationship with Jacob as they work together on the farm, where the two bond while tending to the vegetables in the garden.


The problems of translation here are as internal to the family dynamic as they are between the film and a non- Korean-speaking audience.




Interspersed between some big events—the arrival of Monica’s mother, Soonja (Youn Yuh-jung), from Korea, and their rare visits to the church, the bank, and the doctor—the film follows much of the mundane domestic labor, factory work, and farming that take up Monica and Jacob’s time.8 Scenes of Anne doing chores and burning trash alone in the field, and David’s childish secrets and games, give us brief glimpses into their worlds without much editorial commentary. These juxtaposed generational storylines don’t neatly summarize Jacob and Monica’s immigrant narrative or David and Anne’s second-generation angst. Rather, we are given brief insights into the little emotional islands that each of these characters live on, despite sharing a home.

With the introduction of Soonja, these newly emerging routines are thrown into disarray. Soonja arrives with bags full of delicious foods and medicine for her family. She also plants the eponymous minari, a variety of Korean watercress, in the wilderness that borders Jacob’s precious plot of neatly farmed land without his knowledge. The metaphor of uprooted weeds surviving in the wilds of a foreign land is made explicit as we see the minari flourish without any oversight, in sharp contrast to Jacob’s increasing troubles with his farm produce, which has now cost him his savings and the family’s entire water supply.




Minari (2020). Photo by Melissa Lukenbaugh. Image courtesy of A24.

While Monica is understandably grateful to have her mother’s help at home, and is even moved to tears over the fresh gochugaru she’s brought for them, the kids are less impressed. David quickly decides that Soonja “smells like Korea” and refuses to accept a grandmother who can’t bake cookies. She becomes a source of ongoing frustration for him, since he is forced to share his room with her, eat the strange concoctions that she prepares for him, and run around doing her chores. These would remain minor family fights if they didn’t also explode into broader national, linguistic, and generational differences. In one scene, at once adorable and uncomfortable, David finds himself yelling that his penis is called a “ding dong,” correcting Soonja’s broken English as she teases him about his bed-wetting. The problems of translation here are as internal to the family dynamic as they are between the film and a non-Korean-speaking audience.

The narrative careens toward catastrophe in the final minutes of the film, with a tragic accident involving Soonja. Within the bounds of the story, this accident is just one more unfortunate event arising from a series of choices that the family, and specifically Jacob, make. But this event also highlights what’s left out of the frame: the real lack of public infrastructure that turns a minor domestic incident into a life-threatening event. In this sense, Minari is a very American story, one of a government that has subjected its poorest and most needy to absolute systemic abandonment, and sold that sense of isolation as the mark of true individual freedom.



Minari (2020). Photo by Josh Ethan Johnson. Image courtesy of A24.


Fantasies of a blank slate and a fresh start often paper over unspoken tragedies. For the Yis, their immigrant dreams of American pastoral life are haunted by the difficulties of the life they left behind in Korea. Their new home is located on land dispossessed from its Indigenous inhabitants, and now available for sale because the previous owner died by suicide. These are some of the histories of violence and tragedy that hold up the fantasy of a new beginning on which Jacob has staked everything. The American dream, as Anne Anlin Cheng writes,9 is a pyramid scheme, one that requires a high level of personal investment even when you don’t really buy it. 


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Lakshmi Padmanabhan is a writer and academic living in Chicago, Illinois. Her research interests includeexperimental cinema and visual art, postcolonial theory, and queer feminisms. She has written for venuesincluding Art History, Public Books, Post45, Camera Obscura, New Review of Film & Television Studies, and Women & Performance. She has programmed experimental film and video at BRIC, AS220, and Magic Lantern Cinema. She teaches film and media studies at Northwestern University.


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FOOTNOTES

1. Lee Issac Chung, “Artist: Lee Isaac Chung,” Image, https://imagejournal.org/artist/lee-isaac-chung/.

2. Willa Sibert Cather, “Nebraska: The End of the First Cycle,” The Nation 117 (September 5, 1923): 236-38.

3. Caity Weaver, “Wait — Who Runs the Hollywood Foreign Press Association?,” New York Times, January 10, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/10/style/hfpa-golden-globes.html.

4. Josh Rottenberg and Stacy Perman, “Who really gives out the Golden Globes? A tiny group full of quirky characters — and no Black members,” New York Times, February 21, 2021, https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/business/story/2021-02-21/hfpa-golden-globes-2021-who-are-the-members.

5. Glenn Whipp, “Review: After an exhausting 2020, the gentle ‘Minari’ is the movie we need right now,” Los Angeles Times, December 10, 2020, https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/movies/story/2020-12-10/minari-review-steven-yeun.

6. See Jane Hu’s response to this line of criticism in “The Specificity of ‘Minari,’” The Ringer, February 21, 2021, https://www.theringer.com/movies/2021/2/17/22286185/minari-review-asian-american-representation.

7. Peter Kim George, “Minari Isn’t Really About the American Dream. It’s About US Empire,” Hyperallergic, February 11, 2021, https://hyperallergic.com/621441/minari-review-steven-yeun/.

8. See Summer Kim Lee on these scenes of quotidian gendered labor in Minari: “Greener Pastures,” Artforum, February 11, 2021, https://www.artforum.com/film/summer-kim-lee-on-isaac-lee-chung-s-minari-2021-84988.

9. Anne Anlin Cheng, “The Double Meaning of the American Dream,” The Atlantic, February 19, 2021, https://www.theatlantic.com/culture/archive/2021/02/minari-lee-isaac-chung-visual-melancholia-american-dream/618064/.