In ‘Minari’, Asian American Women Are Finally Allowed To Be Complex Human Beings
The movie is an essential reminder that immigrants don't conform to any one stereotype.
Lee Isaac Chung’s film Minari has been acclaimed for its deeply moving portrayal of both a specific immigrant family in America and the universal human experience. The movie tells the story of the Korean American Yis in the 1980s, as Monica (Yeri Han) is uprooted to Arkansas by husband Jacob (Steven Yuen), along with their children, Anne and David, and eventually grandmother, Soonja (Yuh-Jung Youn), to pursue Jacob’s dream of cultivating Korean crops on American land. The film depicts the family’s day-to-day trials and tribulations as they intersect with the external challenges of immigration, and it depicts its characters, especially the women, as complex, realistic beings. In doing so, Minari poignantly paints a picture of the struggles that so many new immigrants, particularly women, often inevitably face in America, without conforming to unidimensional stereotypes.
While Minari does subtly illustrate acts of discrimination and alienation that occur to the Yi family (and many real-life Korean families) in Arkansas, it does not reduce its characters’ identities to the racism they experience. Monica’s story, for instance, is far more about the challenges of agreeing to pursue her husband’s dream. As she helps Jacob run the farm—cramped in a small trailer house, far from a town with possible friends, and with her family seen as an object of curiosity at church—she tells him, “This is not what you promised.” She spends her days monotonously sexing chicks at a local hatchery to bring money home, and while it isn’t clear what Monica’s own goals are, it is obvious they are not shared by her husband, who promises her it will all be worth it when the money comes in and life drastically changes.
Han, who told Vogue that she drew her representation of Monica from stories of immigrant wives in the ’70s and ’80s, said to the outlet, “Jacob found his dream in America. Monica didn’t have a dream; she simply came with him because of love.”
Monica does not embody the characteristics the media often stereotypes Asian women to have, particularly immigrants: A magical ability to be endlessly resilient, fearless and hardworking, without personal hopes and wants for independence and with a blind appreciation for settling in the United States. Rather, she is human. She loves her mom, misses the food where she grew up, worries about her son’s heart condition, dreams of stability and independence, works hard, grows tired of working, loves her husband, and feels unsure of the move to the U.S. Like any person, she rotates between feelings of loneliness, anger, and occasional pockets of joy.
Then there’s Soonja, Monica’s wise, free-spirited mother, who comes to Arkansas to help care for the children. Although she shares a love for her family with many grandmotherly Asian characters frequently depicted on-screen, she’s not stereotyped as a naive, peaceful old woman who has no identity outside of being a grandma. Instead, she marches to the beat of her own drum, curses like a sailor, and shows her love in her own distinct, unwaveringly loyal way. Like Monica, Soonja makes no comment on any kind of cultural shift in her immigration, instead spending her days playing cards with the kids, drinking Mountain Dew, watching TV, and providing her take even when it isn’t always welcomed.
She is a complicated human rather than a cliché, caring for her loved ones while trying to make it work under complex, unyielding circumstances.
Minari gets its name from a common Korean crop that tends to fare better in its second season after it has already died and returned. As Han told Screen Rant, “To me, minari represents great love; the great love of parents who sowed the seeds on a foreign land for their children.” And ultimately, through a nuanced sense of authenticity and complex, dynamic characters, the film encapsulates the great love with which so many people come to the U.S. Minari, unlike many stories of Asian American immigrants, is not a heartwarming, magical film about the rags to riches American Dream we all know is a myth, but rather, a tale of what it means to be an American. It is an amalgamation of tenuous and circuitous journeys taken by one-of-a-kind individuals both separately and together with the hope of one day flourishing in their new lives.
At a time when the Asian diaspora continues to grow worldwide, Minari is an essential reminder that Asian women who immigrate to the United States have unique experiences and struggles; they are humans with various needs, hopes, desires and love, just like all women. And now, with the COVID-19 pandemic unleashing further racism toward Asian groups and the hardships of immigration disproportionately made even harder due to the downstream effects of the pandemic, Minari‘s commitment to depicting Asian women as dynamic and intricate individuals is paramount to understanding and creating social change.