“Grandma smells like Korea!” seven-year-old David Yi (Alan Kim) complains in the film, Minari, released on February 12. Set in the hardscrabble Ozarks of the late 1970s, the story of the immigrant Yi family gains narrative urgency when David’s grandmother (할머니, halmoni) arrives at his trailer home. Played by veteran Korean actor Yuh-Jung Youn, Grandma Soonja has been invited to Arkansas by David’s parents, Jacob (Steven Yeun) and Monica (Ye-ri Han), in hopes she can repair the family’s fractured dynamics.
Soonja is an unpredictable presence. From Korea, she has lugged large bundles of culinary staples such as gochugaru (Korean red chili peppers) and dried anchovies, as well as seeds for the minari plant, the herb after which the film is named. But David doesn’t know what these things smell like. He only knows that this stranger smells different—and, in his young mind, difference is Korean-ness, because he’s not an immigrant. David is Korean American. Grandma Soonja is Korean. They are closely related, but they are not the same.
Minari delicately inhabits this important difference at a fraught moment in Asian American history. This past year, incendiary rhetoric has acted as an accelerant thrown upon a politicized pandemic, driving a massive spike in physical violence against Asian Americans, with elderly Asians being targeted in particular. At the same time, K-pop is an enormous global success; K-dramas dominate Netflix viewership numbers; and Korean language programs at American universities are growing by leaps and bounds. In the US, it seems that popular demand for all things Korean is expanding, even as populist crimes against Korean Americans are rising.
Minari is a path-breaking indie film made in the US by Korean Americans about Americans (director Lee Isaac Chung and producer Christina Oh) that has already been nominated for two music awards by the Academy. Critics are predicting that the film will be shortlisted for more Oscars’ nominations, including Best Picture. Minari clearly fits inside an established pattern of Korean cinema’s critical and commercial success in the American market as shown by Snowpiercer (2013), The Handmaiden (2016), and Parasite (2019). Yet it stands out precisely because it seeks to illuminate the invisible: the Korean immigrant grappling with the state of becoming Korean American. Though Minari is rightly being compared to Lulu Wang’s film, The Farewell (2019), which similarly foregrounds the tragicomedy of committing to “Asian American” as an identity, I’m unaware of any other film focused so intensely on that transitive state of perpetual becoming, while refusing to let the vision stray or waver from its subject.
How does a film show something that cannot be seen? It accomplishes this by yielding to Soonja’s complicated gaze. Minari presents an Asian American experience that is rural working class, and much of it is told in the Korean language. Because media representation of Asians is already very limited, the popular perception is that Asian American diasporas are exclusively urban, creating “Koreatowns,” “Chinatowns” and “Little Indias” in megalopolises such as Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York. For Minari to start by affirming that rural Koreans exist is thus to challenge historical myths about immigrant realities, precisely because Koreans have been farming American land for over a century.
Just as Soonja’s arrival sets in motion a chain of events that becomes fully intelligible only in hindsight, the film concludes by insisting that we contemplate her face and linger there, so that we understand how much we have been seeing through her eyes. Without giving away spoilers, the film concludes with a slow close-up of Soonja sitting at the kitchen table, watching over her exhausted family. By the end of the film, her gaze has become something tragic, because she seems to be seeing nothing at all.
I had the opportunity to interview Youn, whose English is better than my Korean, so we stuck to conversing in English. I started by asking her about that closing shot on Soonja’s face. What did Youn hope for her character’s gaze to convey?
Soonja was feeling “disappointment,” Youn explained, but also the absence of hope. “She came to help them in some way,” and instead, she destroyed their dream. “She lost her mind. I feel like I [the character of Soonja] got lost… this wasn’t the way I [Soonja] tried to help them.” As Soonja sat at that table, Youn explained, Soonja was “trying to leave them. Just disappear. For them.”
I was struck by her explanation, for what woman hasn’t felt the imperative to self-efface herself into oblivion, perversely thinking it would help a bad situation?
“It’s ambiguous,” I asked, “but does the grandmother die at the end?”
She laughed and replied: “No. Isaac did not want her to die.”
Minari as a whole is semi-autobiographical, based on Chung’s Arkanasas childhood. “Isaac [the director] did not want me to imitate his grandmother,” Youn emphasized. “I had a lot of freedom, for which I was grateful.” Through conversations with the director and sharing memories, she said, “we created the character together.” For a brief time in her extraordinary life, for example, Youn had lived in Florida shortly after she married. Making Minari raised memories of being a young Korean mother in the U.S., along with friends who brought over grandmas to help with babysitting. “I could feel everything in the movie,” she said. “I experienced that.” She drew on that well of experience to create Soonja.
To Soonja, David’s a “pretty” American in cowboy boots. They bond over their shared love of Mountain Dew—which becomes a visual punchline in one of the film’s most memorable scenes—even as the film mines comedy from the fact that David doesn’t think that Soonja looks like a “real” grandma. Soonja takes this as a compliment, and gifts him with a pack of Godori playing cards along with the freedom to gamble and swear. But in lived reality, is any grandma, Korean or otherwise, the kind of woman David holds in his seven-year-old imagination?
Youn herself is a grandmother. But, she pointed out: “I’m not a very typical grandmother type.”
An understatement for this icon of Korean cinema. To audiences in Korea, seeing Youn in this role would be akin to seeing Katharine Hepburn in On Golden Pond or Meryl Streep in anything. Since her breakout role in Woman on Fire (1971) in her early twenties, Youn has become known for portraying rule-breaking, psychologically complex, occasionally furious female characters. Her casting as Soonja suggests that grandma’s role in this film is not as comic relief but something far deeper and unexpected.
That filmography cannot help but resonate with Korean cinephiles, but Youn insisted that her previous roles were “not in my mindset at all. I’m just right there with Alan [the young actor playing David],” her focus entirely on nailing the complexity of feelings between generations separated by culture and identity. As cameras rolled, her focus remained inside the world built by the film, and did not extend to anything beyond the parameters of Minari’s story. “I don’t see myself as representing anything,” she noted. “I am playing a role. There is no ‘furthermore.’”
Nonetheless, the film has been engulfed by “furthermores” of the best kind, precisely because of where the U.S. is right now as a culture, and as a country. Now in her seventies, Youn has been nominated as best supporting actress by the National Society of Film Critics, the Screen Actors Guild, the Critics Choice, and more. By delivering a character who is flawed and fully human, Youn shows how being true to yourself can break us free of tired stereotypes: the fact is that grandmas are far more like Soonja than some mythical cookie-baking woman. Minari also makes the point that by being specific, the story of struggling for your dreams can have universal appeal. It isn’t just Korean or Asian Americans weeping tears of self-recognition at this film, but everyone who has experienced being permanently alienated in this country, yet refuses to give up on it.
Paula Young Lee is the author of several academic books on animal-human relations, as well as the memoir, Deer Hunting in Paris, named Best Travel Book of 2014 by the Society of American Travel Writers. She is currently finishing a novel about circus people of color in Nazi Germany (based on extended family history), as well as a darkly comedic thriller set in an elite boarding school.
Minari is in select theaters now and on demand February 26.
Tickets on sale at A24 Virtual Screening Room