NEW YORK -- "Minari," a semi-autobiographical film directed by Lee Isaac Chung that has won the Golden Globe Award in the foreign-language category, is casting fresh light on the Asian American immigrant experience by honing in on interactions between multiple generations of a single family.
The movie, which grabbed the award at the annual ceremony on Sunday, is the latest Korean-themed work to receive industry acclaim after "Parasite," which took same award at the 2020 Golden Globes followed by the Academy Award for Best Picture at last year's Oscars.
But unlike "Parasite," the nomination of "Minari" triggered controversy because it was shot and produced in the U.S. by Americans, yet it is categorized as a foreign language film and barred from the best motion picture competition as the characters often speak Korean. But for Chung, authenticity matters more than a perfect sales pitch as he was dedicated to placing individuals at the center of the immigrant narrative.
"I think for me the priority in this film was to reclaim a sense of humanity, for all these ideas that come loaded with so many other people saying things about who immigrants are or who people from the South are, or who people of faith are like," Chung said at a recent panel discussion hosted by Asians in LA.
"There's just been so much conversation and labels and categories that have been set up, whereas I feel like coming down to the level of what does it mean for these individuals as human beings to be on this journey?" he said. "I felt that was an important thing."
Inspired by his own childhood in rural Arkansas, the film tells a story of a Korean immigrant family searching for their own version of the American dream in the Ozarks in the 1980s. The father Jacob (Steven Yeun) hopes to support his family by starting his own farm while his wife Monica (Yeri Han) works in a poultry plant and wants to move the family back to California.
The couple fight and compromise by inviting Monica's mother Soonja (Youn Yuh-jung) to stay with them and help watch their two children Ann (Noel Kate Cho) and David (Alan Kim). The story unfolds through David's eyes with his parents' daily toil and sentimental interactions with his grandmother, with whom he planted seeds of minari, a Korean herb, in Arkansas soil.
The movie carries a sense of gentleness and even idyll characterized by long scenic shots of sunlit green fields, dirt roads, creeks and fireflies at twilight. Differentiating itself from other films about immigrant struggles in America, "Minari" focused on the family's internal challenges and dynamics instead of portraying a Korean family trying to fit in. The film goes out of its way to not let external forces, such as racism, take away who these immigrants are "on a human level."
"It brings light to not making every immigrant story about some sort of suffering, it's beyond that, it's about family, about relationships, about parents, about a whole myriad [of] things [than] just skin color and religion, the sorts of topics of immigration that people always touch on," said Christina Oh, who produced "Minari" and is a producer at Plan B, the production company founded by Brad Pitt. "It isn't just a movie that's [made] by Koreans for Koreans, it's for everyone and trying to build that sense of community and discussion around these sorts of conversations."
Oh said that the naturalness felt by the audience is made possible by the crew and the cast bringing their own experiences to the film.
"Isaac left a space for everyone to bring their own thing to it, it felt like it wasn't gate-kept... You're just like living and you don't even have to ask too much for permission," Yeun said at the panel.
Chung said that they added a scene based on an experience of Youn Yuh-jung, who plays the grandmother, when her own mother came to the U.S. to see her children and brought some dates. She put one in her mouth to open it before giving it to her grandson.
"We had those types of conversations [about] what happened in your life when you immigrated with your parents or grandparents," said Chung. "Those experiences are just so precious, [they're] really the texture of any good work. I feel that [it's] those real lived experiences that everyone can connect to."
"Minari" also put the daily grind experienced by immigrant families under the spotlight, such as showing the couple's fights over dead-end jobs at the poultry plant as chicken sexers who "stare at chicken butts" all day, and Jacob's countless attempts to make the farm work. Through his portrayal, Yeun said he had his own reckoning about immigrant life.
"It's a determination founded on your own existence, like there's no plan B, you just have to do it, so you just grind hard. I saw my dad do it, he's like 68 and he's still working. It feels like the grind of an immigrant life justifies a work-to-the bone type of work ethic," Yeun said.
"And I think that's an incredible power... [But] as a second generation kid, watching how hard my parents still work, I'm just like, 'Can you tone it down a bit? Like you need to live [a little] and to see your grandkids.' There's something in the middle of [the grind] that I feel like could be a sweet spot," he added.
"The lesson that I'm learning now, as I'm getting a little bit older, is the wisdom of saying no to things too," he said.
On top of showing immigrants as humans on an individual level, Chung hopes that the film can inspire conversations within their families.
"One of the most important screenings I had was to show this to my mom and dad, I felt like that broke down a lot of barriers that we had with each other, where we both felt we weren't seeing each other, that we didn't understand each other," said Chung. "If that could happen with more people who are watching the film within their own families, within communities, it's a tall order."
Chung said he also hopes that "Minari" can create dialogue between Korean Americans and Koreans because there is an assumption that Koreans who left South Korea found a lot of success, but Koreans do not necessarily understand the struggles immigrants have to go through in America.
To the cast and crew, although the film itself did not touch much on racism, it still weaves into the larger themes about immigration through internal thoughts.
"[It's] freeing ourselves from the binds that sometimes this country can put upon minorities and immigrants," said Yeun. "I realized that the 'white gaze' I'm often trying to duck and escape from in the roles I play is also in me, in my eyes, in my body. Doing this type of work, understanding how to see my father as a human being and then subsequently taking down some of the barriers of entry like it's not just [a film] for us, it actually allowed me to see myself a little bit clearer.
"I'm not a calculation of expectations or boxes or labels, I'm just this free floating, chaotic existence embodied in this Korean American body," he said.