Why I Was Disappointed By Minari
Last week I watched Minari, a film about a Korean-American family who moved to rural Arkansas to start a farm. Asian American-led and directed films are rare, and this was thoughtful, well-written, widely publicized, and a beautiful one. So why did I feel disappointed after I watched it?
Devin called me when the movie ended to hear my thoughts, and I was stuck. I didn’t feel like I had the credibility or any specific criticism to share, and Devin likes to spend a lot of her time dissecting movies at length and wouldn’t let me off the hook. Every time I said something negative, she would ask, “but why?” Eventually I broke, and with a tinge of frustration and a chuckle, I said, “I think I wanted it to heal all my racial trauma.”
What an incredible burden to put on a movie. I realized this wasn’t the first time I’d done this - I do this to nearly any Asian-American film or media. Why did I do this with Minari? I’m not even fucking Korean-American. I’m Chinese-American. I’m not from Arkansas and my family never owned a farm. I’m from El Monte, California and I live in a suburb. Did I not enjoy this movie because it didn’t reflect any part of my experience? Do I need to see myself in it for it to be good? When I reflected on Jay Caspian Kang’s article “The Many Lives of Steven Yeun,” I considered the real possibility for my problem with the film. Maybe it is because Minari is not what Kang calls, “dignity porn” - the type of story where an oppressed protagonist, excavates all the differences compared with the dominant culture, then humanizes these differences in a soft, palatable manner.
Asian-America occupies a very unique and delicate place in the racial landscape of America, one that I feel is still incredibly binary. I think this binary finally came to light with the extreme rise of Asian-American hate crimes last year. It was finally made aware that Asians experience what people think is “real” racism. The hate crimes were real. We had video proof. Real violence. Real racial slurs.
When the “stop Anti-Asian hate” posts were finally circulating on social media, I felt a mixture of relief, annoyance, and frustration. I was relieved that people finally acknowledged it, annoyed that it took so long for people to care, and frustrated that race in America is still black vs. white - everyone else is understood in relation to one of these categories.
This binary has pinned me down my whole life and manifests itself in several ways. It is what conditional acceptance feels like. It is like being seen but never heard. It is like being a scapegoat or a token. It’s not being Asian, it’s being white-adjacent.
Growing up a child of immigrants, I was surrounded by people whose lives did not reflect my own. I was always embarrassed. Always trying to fit in. Stinky food. A classic storyline. Dignity porn. But it feels like for the last 4-5 years, a lot of my identity has been tied up in proving to the world that I WAS Asian. “Look at me, I love being Chinese! I celebrate all the traditional Chinese holidays! I’m dating an Asian man! I want Asian children! I can speak Chinese! I’ve visited Hong Kong MANY times!” I tried to make up for my years of embarrassment by constantly dropping hints that I’m not just Asian, I’m really fucking Asian. But in reality, what I was really trying to prove was that I’m so Asian, that there is no way that you could think I’m white.
I wanted Minari to be another way for people to see that Asian-Americans existed outside of this binary. That we are a huge and diverse group in America and we exist in our own context. And yet, when I finished the movie I thought, “Why make an entire movie about Korean-Americans, if it’s not going to be about race?” I didn’t want Paul, who is white, to just like kimchi. I wanted him to hate it. Then I wanted Jacob, the Korean protagonist, to give a passionate speech about the history of kimchi and eloquently explain the oppression of Asian-Americans. AND I wanted him to do it eloquently. AND stay in character. The trope I despised seeing myself depicted in over and over again, was suddenly the one I unfairly expected from Minari.
It took reading Kang’s article for me to realize it but this is why the film is special. Yes, it has Korean characters and a lot of the film is in Korean, but at the end of the day, it is American. It’s not a typical immigrant story about adversity and triumph, and does not exist solely to explain racism to its white audience. Their family being Korean is secondary to the heart of it, which in the end is just about a man, his marriage, his family, and the mundane.
While conversations about race in film are important and necessary and many stories are still yet to be told, I also yearn to see more Asian-Americans and People of Color exist within the typical American storyline, and let go of our addiction to dignity porn. My hope is that moving forward, we nurture more POC writers, filmmakers, artists, and creatives to tell stories about the nuances of what being an American looks like for all of us. Cause hey, we can do “regular,” or “mundane” shit for the duration of a 2 hour movie, too.
Watch the official Minari trailer here: