Years ago, one of my Korean-American friends told me how exasperated she was with Korean-American stories. “They’re so depressing. They’re always about loss. What are we supposed to do with all that sadness?”
It’s almost as if writer/director Lee Issac Chung were eavesdropping on our conversation when he made Minari, as if he came along years later to answer that question for us.
In Minari, Jacob relocates his family from from LA’s Korean community to rural Arkansas where he sets out to grow Korean produce on the side while he and his wife Monica work as chicken sexers during the day. It is, as they find out, where other Koreans have landed to escape the Korean church. They are exiled not only from Korea, but from the Korean-American community as well. They are outliers among outliers.
Jacob’s move is not only a reverse gold rush, but a repudiation of the idea of luck itself, as he derides the water dowser. It was the pursuit of better fortune that landed the couple as chicken sexers for the past decade. This move to Arkansas is simultaneously more inspired, more cynical, and more defiant. For Jacob, the church and the community of others offer no possibilities. All we have are our own dogged determination and arduous labor — and our ability to reason, Jacob teaches his son.
A pivotal, foreshadowing occurs near the beginning when Jacob, with a smokestack ominously blowing in the background, explains to his son David that all male chicks are killed. The males are useless, he tells him. We have to make ourselves useful.
His is what Erving Goffman calls a spoiled identity. Such identities are deemed less worthy than the identities of others. Jacob (and by extension David) bear not one facet of spoiled identity, but three: immigrant-Asian-male. As emasculated Asian males, they are the most vulnerable. Even though Jacob is married, his wife is on the verge of leaving him. He spends his time looking at butts of baby chicks. His only son is a “pretty boy” with a damaged heart and a broken penis. Jacob’s desperate need to prove himself is decoupled from his family’s chances of survival. It is not as much a response to America, his community, or his family, but to his internalized view of himself. His current position in the social order is a drastic fall from the privileged status as the eldest Korean son.
His desperation to de-spoil his identity is not understood by his family, where he still presides as the dominant member who disciplines the children, makes financial decisions, and determines their place on earth. The only way to maximize his chance of success is to protect himself from the judging gaze of others. Nothing can happen to us here, he tells his wife. No one is around. Shielded from the outside world, he need only rely on his own effort, without the complicating factors of society. Alone, he has a chance of prevailing, of finding a way to prove himself worthy.
Throughout the film, Lee Issac Chung questions the idea of utility. What does it mean to be useful? Growing up, we were guided by this principle. As green card holders, we in our family were acutely aware of our status as guests in this country, and as visible minorities, we lived at the mercy of the dominant communities who found us useful to keep around — or at least not useless enough to reject. Utility framed our understanding of our present, past, and future. It provided the raison d’etra for our immigration life; not to put our utmost human effort toward our future was to make a mockery of the painful decision to uproot our family. Achieving success would provide the redemption to validate our relocation.
To not be useful was to fail each other when we had only each other to turn to, when the needs were so dire. In our family, we traded in needs; more effort by one meant the other could expend less. When our mother lost pound after pound and suffered from painful hemorrhoids from running our dry cleaning business, I picked up extra chores at home, cleaning, doing the laundry, cooking dinner, and picking up groceries. As teenagers, we helped out at the store on the weekends to try to reduce their workload. I was not the only Korean-American kid who vowed to get a good enough job to pay off my parents’ mortgage. Being useful — in the service of each others’ needs — became our only language of love.
Chung litters the film with plenty of examples to help us explore this concept of utility. A grandmother who comes to take care of the kids, but spends her time gambling and watching wrestling. A neighbor who spends his weekends dragging a wooden cross for miles. A trailer house that may not be secure enough to provide shelter during a tornado. A dowser who offers the dubious service of finding a water source with a stick. Expensive Korean hanyak that has no curative connection to little David’s heart murmur. A living made as an experienced and efficient chicken sexer.
On the other side of the coin of utility is the question of value. What gives us value as human beings? What happens when we do not have the ability to be useful, like little David whose body does not even allow him to run? Or when the outcome does not match the intent, like the grandmother who only seeks to help when she burns the trash? What do we do when our utility depends on the performance of others who may fail us, like the Korean produce buyer who breaks the contract? Does our utility dictate our value?
In college, I sat around with my Korean-American friends in a musty cafe pondering these questions with a cold coffee mug in my hand. Did Korean parents believe in unconditional love? Is there such a thing, or is all love conditional? These questions masked the internal personal questions we did not voice, like did we somehow fail to achieve all that we could have? Were we not useful enough, and therefore, not as lovable? We had been so steeped in the language of utility that once freed of our home environment, we wondered what else existed beyond it. We spoke without betraying any emotions, except for an occasional set of glistening eyes, as if we were speaking solely about philosophical matters that do not bear on our sense of self-worth or well-being.
I never had satisfying answers to these questions until I watched Minari. It felt as if Lee Issac Chung had been sitting next to me in my college conversations, beset with the same questions, the same quandary. As the children grab the grandmother’s hand to bring her back home and the couple reach for each other during the fire, I suddenly understood. During our moments of failures, we are forced to be seen. Stripped of our ambition, aspirations, bravado, and our array of defensive masks, we appear in our nakedness. When we fail, our humanity becomes manifest.
Like my friend, I too felt trapped in the sorrows of our immigration stories. They felt like dead ends, suffocating emotions, with limited hope for reprieve. But in Chung’s story, it is the very suffering that saves the family. When the crops are destroyed and Jacob’s human effort laid to waste, they are suddenly exposed in their desperation, freed from the hamster wheel of Jacob’s determination. This is where they meet each other.
Growing up, I watched my father after he plunged from his role as a managing director of a Korean conglomerate to a dry cleaner, spot checking stains on other peoples’ three-piece suits and sequined party dresses. He never fully recovered from the sadness of losing his status. It had been his unabashed boast to escape a destitute childhood on a farm in the remote mountains of Sancheong. Having to revert to manual labor after reaching Seoul National University felt like an undoing, a negation of all that he had worked toward. Yet, it was also in this space where we came to understand the depth of his dreams, the expanse of his tenacity, and the human capacity to reach around painful adversity. It is also here that we came to appreciate the fragility of our lives, the uncertainty of the future, and the possibilities that await any of us. Previously, I always assumed we had missed out on a life that should have been, but now I wonder if we lived differently, more intensely, more humanly.
In the movie, minari is planted outside the perimeter of the area the parents consider safe. The older sister cautions little David not to go so far. But holding the grandmother’s hand, he ventures further. Here, they find a creek and a snake. And it is here where minari thrive. It is delicious, nutritious, and medicinal, the grandmother promises. It is a resilient plant that grows with minimal effort.
It is as if Chung is quietly comforting us. You will be ok. You can put down your exhaustion. Know your people will multiply. Trust that you too will reap the bounties of this Eden, if you allow yourself to traverse past the boundaries of your fears. The seeds have already been planted.
Ironically, this film about immigrants grants me permission to transcend my own immigrant identity. I can imagine the director saying, You can put down the burdens of your immigration. Do not be defined by it any longer. You no longer need to prove yourself worthy.
I have been waiting all these years to hear these messages.