Coupled with Zhao’s career momentum, the accolades for Lee Isaac Chung’s semi autobiographical account of a family of Korean immigrants starting an Arkansas farm in the 1980s have led to numerous think pieces that position 2020 as the long-awaited year of Asian recognition in film. A Sundance sensation, Minari splits its focus between seven-year-old David (Alan Kim) adjusting to sharing his trailer bedroom with his recently arrived grandmother (Youn Yuh Jung) and family patriarch Jacob (Steven Yeun) fulfilling his dreams of escaping a career as a chicken sexer at a hatchery by starting a farm that grows Korean vegetables. Though Chung adopts an observational aesthetic, the film remains rooted in the plot beats of family melodrama—a narrative choice that helps bridge its Korean immigrant context with a universal humanism.
While Minari deserves credit for its distinct portrait of a globalized South, the press’s casting of it as a perpetual victim has had the unfortunate consequence of magnifying its otherwise unapparent failings. Though it won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign-Language Film, Chung’s relegation to that category sparked a racism scandal that only enhanced the film’s awards profile. Likewise, in the wake of the Atlanta spa shootings, the film’s Oscar success became a rallying cry for Asians who felt invisible and stripped of their agency. Minari’s autobiographical elements aside, such a case seems untenable considering that Chung is a Yale-educated filmmaker who has essentially mined the South and his own exaggerated exoticism there for the sake of a career breakthrough. He has crafted a regional film without any allegiance to the region, the complete opposite of his fellow Arkansas auteur Jeff Nichols (Mud, Loving). Much to Chung’s credit, the film steers clear of one-dimensionality in its handling of its characters within the rural church and farming communities (its ending is even a tacit endorsement of hybridity between a minority family and a demonized region). At the same time, its white characters such as Korean War Vet and cross-carrying fundamentalist Paul (Will Patton) and the alcoholic single father of David’s church friend clearly have it much harder in their hometown than Jacob’s family who have curiously fled the liberal bastion of California to achieve their dreams in the toxic rural South.