In 2018, Steven Yeun’s role as a Korean-American labor organizer in Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You was a watershed moment in representation, though no one seemed to notice. Just one generation before Yeun’s, in 1970s and 1980s South Korea, being a labor organizer would have meant being branded a North Korean spy, prosecuted by the still extant National Security Act, detained by the Korean CIA, or worse.
Minari, a film by Lee Isaac Chung about a Korean family that immigrates to rural Arkansas in the early 80s, has been hailed as an American Dream immigrant narrative. Editorial pieces that frame Minari as an assimilation success story share a basic assumption — that more important than the specifics of the film itself is that the film, simply by existing, is doing actual political work. In other words, the very fact of Minari’s existence helps effect a melting pot, a racially inclusive picture of America. Minari: the story of a Korean family becoming American and America becoming a more perfect nation.
The problem with framing Minari as a story about becoming American is that if you look closely, it is not at all about this. It is about displacement, about desperation — about survival, and ultimately about American empire. We find out that Jacob (Yeun) and Monica (Han Yeri), who first immigrated to California from Korea, had a rough go of it working in a chicken factory before moving to rural Arkansas, to a portable home and plot of land whose previous farmer died by suicide. The 80s were a difficult time for small midwestern farmers with the rise of big agriculture and a major financial recession, but times were still worse in Korea, where US-backed military dictator Chun Doo-hwan carried on the brutal anti-labor, pro-corporate agenda of his predecessor, military dictator Park Chung-hee, also supported by the US. Park’s Korea of the 60s, the period when Jacob would have come of age, was one in which historian Bruce Cumings notes that Korean laborers were paid a tenth of their American counterparts, and yet were touted as 2.5 times more productive to lure American manufacturers. Student-led democratic uprisings against US intervention and dictatorship were as common as they were brutally suppressed in the 80s, notably foregrounded in films like Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder (2003) and Lee Chang-dong’s Peppermint Candy (1999).
Certainly, this is the world Jacob is alluding to when he says to Monica, “Life was so difficult in Korea.” He knows life wasn’t difficult only for him; Jacob’s business plan of growing Korean produce for Korean grocery stores, as he tells his daughter, relies squarely on the fact that he anticipates tens of thousands of Koreans will immigrate in the coming years in search of a more hopeful future, only to be foreclosed by the very country to which they will immigrate.
The irony of this historical fact is both tragic and unavoidable. When Paul (Will Patton), a local farm hand, shows Jacob a piece of Korean War-era currency from when he served in the military, a shadow crosses over Jacob’s face. The camera moves from a medium to a master shot, and we don’t actually see the paper bill. Had there been an insert shot, we would’ve seen a portrait of Syngman Rhee on the bill, the US-appointed dictator of the Republic of Korea from 1948 to 1960. Poet Cathy Park Hong recounts a similar encounter in her memoir Minor Feelings, watching her father feign politeness with an American Korean War veteran. “They destroyed my country,” Hong’s father exclaims, “do I have to appear grateful now too?”
Context matters. The traces of American empire are everywhere in Minari with the proper historical framing. Without it, the film can appear as a Western, a frontier narrative, a Korean-American twist on manifest destiny. Indeed, Jacob’s quixotic dedication to duty and place, contrasted with Monica’s cautious realism, seems oddly similar to Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly’s plotline in High Noon. That the plot leans into the Western genre and paints Jacob with the colors of rugged American individualism points to a key tension in the film around agency: yes, Jacob voluntarily uproots his family to brave his farming adventure, but he and his family have also been uprooted, involuntarily, by historical and economic circumstance, from Korea and then California. Jacob and Monica do not choose to be pioneers, nor are they moving for the thrill of the frontier; instead, they find themselves, like many Koreans of their generation, refugees of American interventionism.
Another issue is that Steven Yeun is miscast as Jacob. He is miscast for the same reason he was so superbly cast in Okja and Burning — Yeun’s bodily mannerisms and speech are American through and through. By mannerisms, I mean those dimensions of culture and nationality that trickle into the most basic, lived instincts of how one sits in a chair or expresses hesitation. In Okja and Burning, it imbues a hybrid otherness to his character, which works so well in Bong’s and Lee’s films, respectively. Chung notes in an interview that he had originally imagined the role of Jacob for someone from Korea.
Still, it is difficult to write that Yeun is miscast in Minari, for several reasons. One, a mostly non-Korean viewership (still a remarkable feat in itself for a non-English language film) is unlikely to notice that Yeun quite obviously does not fit the mold of a man who comes of age in 1960s and 70s South Korea, so why bring it up? Add to which how prominently Yeun features in the film’s marketing and press — a Korean actor may have been a better fit, but certainly would not have given Minari its visibility.
The US film press often has a hard time conceiving of a film or actor’s importance beyond the manufacture of celebrity, and this is a problem — but it is also true that Yeun’s star power has brought worthwhile attention to a pivotal time and subject. Add to which, as I have written elsewhere, Yeun’s career in exploring hybridized identities has been groundbreaking. So there are silver linings, the most compelling of which is that it radically changes the subtext of those moments when Jacob speaks in broken, Korean-accented English. Because Yeun is American and his fluency in English is a given, the viewer assumes his Korean-accented English is elective. It connotes not verbal limitation, but verbal command. We can see the accent for what it truly is — not as a fault in language but a coherent language in itself, a skillful performance on Yeun’s part, moving in and out of English, Korean, and Korean-English to portray the socio-cultural nuances of character. In Yeun’s hands, Korean-accented English is an expression of craft rather than prejudice — the perfect inverse, in both casting and intention, of Mickey Rooney’s paradigmatic racist Asian accent in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
Ultimately, it will be helpful to think of Minari as two films in one: the first being that which exists in the uninformed imaginary, which sees in the film’s portrayal of adversity an inexorable march towards Americanness and whiteness. The other takes seriously the film’s multiple gestures to traumatic national and personal histories prior to the moment of immigration, and how its characters agonize over those histories. Immigration in Minari should be thought of in terms of displacement and diaspora, and its lesson of resilience in terms of remembrance rather than assimilation.
Minari (2021) will be released in virtual cinemas starting February 12.
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