‘Minari’: Authenticity Without The Trauma Porn

When diverse representation is featured on-screen, it oftentimes comes with strings attached that undermine the message they were trying to send. This can be attributed to the fact that behind-the-screen, the industry primarily does not reflect the breadth of diverse difference that is present in daily life. That’s why when something as powerful and authentic as Minari comes along, it is both incredibly wonderful and needs a large audience to witness it.

Aspen Nelson
Aspen Nelson
April 23, 2021

When diverse representation is featured on-screen, it oftentimes comes with strings attached that undermine the message they were trying to send. This can be attributed to the fact that behind-the-screen, the industry primarily does not reflect the breadth of diverse difference that is present in daily life. That’s why when something as powerful and authentic as Minari comes along, it is both incredibly wonderful and needs a large audience to witness it. Written and directed by Lee Isaac Chung, the film is inspired by his own experiences growing up in Arkansas during the 80s with his Korean-immigrant family. It explores the challenges and spirit of the American dream without losing itself in on-the-nose trauma at every plot point. Especially in the wake of BLM and rising hate crimes occurring in Asian-American communities, it's hard not to associate talking about differing racial and cultural experiences under only extremely violent and oppressive conditions. Though vital to discuss the acts of brutality facing marginalized communities, it is just as important to see positive examples in media of said groups that take nuance in reflecting a complex life experience. To put it simply, it is important to see both sides of the coin to inspire hope and provide understanding. Minari does both.

Childish Point of View

Despite making such an impactful note on its audience, the film is quite intimate with its small cast of characters and limited landscape. Thus, it is hard not to feel so connected in the observance of these characters day to day lives. The camerawork truly embodies the world from the point of view of David, the youngest child and main character. We feel a sense of hope and excitement in every brightly colored shot of the wilderness around him that seems so vast. The low angles and beaming sunlight evoke an unconditional joy and curiosity in discovering this new world from a fresh set of eyes. The acting, too, draws you in further by the realistic and captivating performances each member of the family brings. David, in particular, is played by 7-year-old Alan S. Kim who turns a sometimes bratty protagonist into someone lovable and learning. He is resentful and confused by his Korean heritage, an issue that in media is often relegated to adults to reconcile with but not usually children. However, his hurtful earnestness and slow realization toward empathy with his familial background is a compelling and gradual struggle. It demonstrates a time of inadvertent self-exploration that comes with growing up as a first-generation American and/or a person of color. It is a surprisingly charming and well-thought-out performance for such a challenging yet vital theme to explore.

‘Minari’: Authenticity Without The Trauma Porn

Dreams or Success?

The intimate acting has the audience begin to identify with the family’s struggles — particularly with the hope of achieving a dream and avoiding being ostracized. Steve Yeun gives a fantastically well-rounded performance as the family’s patriarch, Jacob, who is trying to establish his own farm — the ultimate symbol of self-sustaining independence. His self-made attitude and drive to move past his job chicken sexing creates the central conflict of the movie which begs the question: is it better to have a job to stay comfortable or to risk it all and follow your dreams? This theme is especially relevant today with the large questioning of the effectiveness of capitalist policies with sustaining the public that is currently happening in America during COVID-19. Stories like Minari hit harder in trying to assess if survival and ambition can coexist for the majority of Americans. Instead of focusing on explicit bigotry by hurling slurs from obviously prejudiced antagonists, the story does an amazing job in accurately portraying the biggest villain of all: institutionalized racism. It is structures that perpetuate racism to trickle down in socialized conditioning and societal frameworks that, in turn, encourage ostracization and oppression. This nuance in showing how racism works on a variety of levels that are quiet yet incredibly influential is important to note. Without the economic constraints and cultural differences that the family faces, most of the conflict of the story would not occur.

Minari is truly the best. It grows anywhere, like weeds. So anyone can pick and eat it. Rich or poor, anyone can enjoy it and be healthy. Minari can be put in kimchi, put in stew, put in soup. It can be medicine if you are sick. Minari is wonderful, wonderful! - Soonja

Beyond Caretakers

The only real flaw I believe the story has is that the sister Anne, played with a subtle restraint by Noel Cho, is pushed to the sidelines in comparison to everyone else’s stories. I think she has a significantly interesting role in often playing a second “mother” trying to take look after her brother. She really is the most responsible out of everyone else in the household and keeps calm during the most stressful of situations — including the heartbreaking finale. This kind of poise should be recognized in representing the maternal responsibility girls end up often having to take on in the families— especially when mothers themselves have to work all day too. Though it would’ve been more interesting to explore, I do appreciate the realistic reflection that many young girls have to deal with. Soonja, the grandmother played by the incomparable Yuh-Jung Youn, however, breaks forth in providing important female representation that is both unconventional and flawlessly done. Her character is, firstly, crucial to the story (a rarity for most older women in films). Without her, David would not be directly confronted with his identity crisis nor would he have the person who inspires him most. Soonja’s witty antics and carefree personality are the main emotional center of the movie by giving it a light-hearted yet strong-willed touch. She even gives the film its name by planting Minari bushes which will (mild spoiler) help sustain the family later on. She, in my personal opinion, should win every award for best-supporting actress — to say the least.

The Yi Family

The Yi Family

Conclusions

I’m hoping, by now, that I have convinced you what a wonderful feat in representation (and just generally fantastic film-making) this film has accomplished and the importance of how it addresses race compared to Hollywood’s history of doing so. Though to only prove the point of the industry’s ignorance, the Golden Globes nominated Minari for “Best Most Picture — Foreign Language” instead of “Best Motion Picture — Drama” because most of the film is spoken in Korean. Despite it accurately depicting the American-Immigrant experience (this is not 2012 Les Mis, we’re not living in France speaking English with British accents), the Hollywood Foreign Press did not see it fit to nominate an AMERICAN production that is set in AMERICA with Korean protagonists. Essentially, this snub just shows the mindset of those with power in the entertainment industry, only conceiving American/English-language films to contain narrow experiences that seldom divert from their own expectations. As Daniel Dae Kim put it best: “The film equivalent of being told to go back to your country when that country is actually America.” Though the industry very obviously has a long way to go before fixing its highly internalized racism and prejudices, Minari is a beautiful masterpiece in exploring the American immigrant experience without creating an exploitative and hard-to-watch piece of art.

‘Minari’: Authenticity Without The Trauma Porn