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Minari is America

Why we love this Best Picture nominee.

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A father and son look into the distance together.
Alan Kim and Steven Yeun in Minari.
Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Eight films are in the running for Best Picture, the most prestigious award at the Oscars, this year. That’s a lot of movies to watch, analyze, and enjoy. So in the days leading up to the April 25 ceremony, Vox staffers look at each of the nominees in turn. What makes this film appealing to Academy voters? What makes it emblematic of the year? And should it win?

Below, Vox film critic Alissa Wilkinson, senior culture reporter Alex Abad-Santos, identities reporter Fabiola Cineas, and critic at large Emily VanDerWerff talk about Minari, Lee Isaac Chung’s vibrant family drama about a Korean American family living in the Ozarks in the 1980s.

Minari’s specificity is what makes it so appealing

Alissa Wilkinson: I first saw Minari in a different world: at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2020, on a huge screen in an auditorium filled with ecstatic audience members. The filmmakers were there, and the reception was rapturous. I remember just being so happy to watch it.

Turns out it’s the only one of the Best Picture nominees I saw on a big screen (boy, it hurts to say that), and I’m delighted the movie’s buzz persisted into awards season and that so many people have found it so incredibly meaningful.

There are a lot of entry points to Minari. There’s the experience of immigrants and their children, people of Asian descent in particular. There’s the feeling of what it’s like to grow up in rural America, especially if you’re not white and the dominant community around you is. There’s the oddities and quirks of American religious communities. There’s the battle to maintain a youthful dream and a marriage in difficult times. And a lot more, too.

I know all of you found your way into this film from different directions. What spoke to you?

Emily VanDerWerff: I love stories that draw you in with their specificity. Minari is “about” a lot of things, if you want to pull back to the thematic level, and it has a ton of elements it’s mixing together in its plot. But two key ingredients that the movie nails are its depiction of running a small family farm and its depiction of rural evangelical Christianity.

After watching this movie, I jokingly remarked to Alissa that it was a surprisingly accurate portrayal of agricultural policy in the 1980s. While I don’t think Minari will teach you how to run a farm in the 1980s, it does offer an overview of both the pitfalls and benefits of getting into agriculture at a time when banks were loaning money to small family farmers and the US government was doubling down on farm subsidies, but also at a time when the specter of corporations driving smaller family farms out of business loomed large. What is Jacob’s (Steven Yeun) struggle to find anyone to buy his vegetables about but the way the market suffocated operations like his, slowly but surely? Okay, Jacob’s struggle is about way more than just that. But I appreciated how Minari got its details about farm life in a rural area right without really overstating them.

The film takes a similar approach to Christianity. Jacob’s hired hand, Paul (Will Patton), practices a version of Pentecostalism that he seems to have largely invented himself, which involves speaking in tongues, praying over the crops, and hauling a cross down the road every Sunday. Minari’s depiction of Paul’s faith is in addition to how it shows the Yi family joining a nearby church and encountering microaggressions — both well-meaning and not so well-meaning — from its many white congregants.

What I like about these details is that the movie doesn’t particularly feel the need to comment on them. Minari succeeds because it stays firmly rooted in the point-of-view of young David (Alan Kim), so when his parents are on the verge of splitting up but ultimately seem to resolve their differences, we understand their story only as much as he does. Yes, as adults we can likely fill in the blanks better than he can, but Minari is careful to never overplay its hand.

That approach creates a movie where I remember individual moments and images more than I do the story’s overall sweep, but maybe that’s the point. Maybe we’re meant to think about this movie like we would our own childhoods — as a series of islands of memory, surrounded by vast oceans of what we have forgotten or never really understood in the first place.

Also: Shoutout to Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung), the best onscreen grandma in ages.

An older Korean woman smiles, with a background of lush green treees.
Youn Yuh-jung is the first South Korean actress nominated for an Oscar.
Courtesy of A24

Alex Abad-Santos: There are two very authentic things about how this movie captures growing up Asian American in the ’80s: The first is how Soon-ja does what’s known as the Asian squat, and the second is how the family, like my family, loves its soda pop. Everyone in my family can Asian squat, though my mom absolutely hates the look of it, and growing up, my parents always had soda stocked in the fridge.

But beyond the “Oh my gosh, is that a sliver of my life on screen?” moments, I loved how Minari was a story about a family trying to survive. It’s about parents doing what they think is best for their kids; about the life-affirming connections we have with our mothers and grandmothers; the way we will move mountains, maybe even causing friction with our spouses and significant others, for our parents; and how survival is its very own kind of love.

One of the scenes seared into my brain happens when Soon-ja arrives and starts pulling all this stuff, stuff you can find only in Korea, out of her suitcase. Her daughter, Monica (Yeri Han), crumbles with joy at the sight of her haul. It’s such a brief scene, but it gets across not only how much Monica misses her mother and her home — everything she gave up to move to America — but also how well Soon-ja knows her daughter, understands how lonely she is, and brings these items to nourish Monica’s soul.

And that’s just one moment of countless others.

Fabiola Cineas: I can’t stop thinking about little David’s expressions, particularly the moment before he commits the biggest mischief of all — serving Soon-Ja, his grandmother, a teacup of his pee. As soon as the camera focused on his face, allowing us to see his eyes gleeful with malintent, I knew something bad was going to happen. The close shots of David’s face were some of the most authentic moments in this film for me because he perfectly captured what it feels like to be a first-generation immigrant growing up in a country where your parents weren’t born but are fighting to survive.

My family came to America in the late 1970s from Haiti, and it’s surreal how much of our story is wrapped up in Minari. Though we didn’t grow up in a rural part of the country, no matter where you are, the immigrant experience is about isolation, pushing your way in, and carving out space for your culture and journey.

All of this is to say I saw myself in David, from being suspicious of the “foreign” grandparent who urges you to eat stale treats to grimacing at the fact that your grandparent smells like a faraway land. Other moments: David having to go fetch a stick for a beating (been there!), and being immigrants at a white church. The way Soon-ja watches wrestling — narrating every kick and blow — has inspired me to investigate the connection between immigrant women and wrestling. This is the same way my mother has watched wrestling for decades. It’s something I’ve never been able to understand or explain. I have recorded it on camera, though.

I appreciate how Minari didn’t have to force any narratives or include any extreme plot points to draw people into this story about a Korean family trying to make it in America. What’s fascinating is how normal the story is.

Minari challenges Hollywood’s attitudes about what is “American”

Alissa: Yes! You’re all pointing to something I think conventional Hollywood movies sometimes forget — that movies become more interesting to viewers when they lean into specificity, rather than trying to appeal to a broad audience by being more vague or general. Not every detail of Minari is familiar to every audience, but some details are, and I think that’s what has made it work so well for so many people who’ve seen it.

At the same time, it’s undeniably an Asian American story. A lot of conversation about the movie — thanks to the Golden Globes designating it a “foreign language film” — pushes back on ideas about what counts as “American” and what makes something “foreign.” It’s a matter that movies have run into before, even recently (see also The Farewell), and taps into big and very important questions.

Minari is a story set in America about people living in America, produced by an American company, written and directed by an American based in part on his own childhood memories. The Oscars won’t file it under the “international” film category for all of those reasons, but there’s still a sense that a movie in which a lot of the dialogue isn’t in English might be seen, by some, as “foreign.”

This might be too big a question, but I want to hear what you think: Are we past the point where it’s valuable or even advisable to think about “foreign films” at all? And for you, what category does Minari fit into? How would you characterize the film to someone if you’re encouraging them to see it?

A family stands together.
The ensemble cast of Minari makes it shine.
Josh Ethan Johnson/A24

Fabiola: So glad you brought up that Golden Globes controversy, Alissa. Can any of you help me understand why, under the Golden Globes rules, a “foreign language film” can’t compete in the awards’ Best Picture categories? And how did they decide that at least 50 percent of words in English = American? Why not 60 percent, or 80? It all seems so arbitrary and a clear sign that this is just a way to “other” films and filmmakers like Minari and Lee Isaac Chung. Minari is as American as it gets, and so is Chung. It’s past time for these rules to change, to stop forcing (typically) nonwhite filmmakers to go through extra levels of scrutiny just to be judged alongside what this country has deemed the norm — whiteness.

Every time a controversy like this happens, people start trying to investigate how American the filmmaker is. In Minari’s case, even though the Oscars have more readily recognized the film as American, I’ve seen people attempt to unnecessarily overexplain how Chung is from Denver or that he went to Yale as a way to make viewers feel comfortable. It shouldn’t matter where he was born or where he went to school. Dear white people: Stop making Asian Americans jump through hoops as a form of repentance for being great.

Alex: This gets at my problem with the Oscars. On the one hand, I feel like, who cares what these people think (see Green Book winning Best Picture in 2019) in the grand design of things? These awards shouldn’t be a mark of quality, especially when they reward mediocre movies.

On the other hand, if Minari wins, I will be so happy that it got recognized for being the beautiful film that it is. It’ll be a sign of filmic justice: A splendid movie wins for being the best movie of the entire year (which also happened last year with Parasite). And yes, that is a testament to how idiotic the Oscars are and their power over me.

I do think a Best International Film category should exist at the Oscars, but only because the Academy can be so myopic in its vision of what “good” movies look like and are (though the organization is trying to fix this by being more inclusive in its membership). I know that increases the potential for siloing international movies, but without an international category, would they get recognized at all? (Like, how does the renowned Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar only have one Oscar nomination for directing, ever?)

I think the entire debacle at the Golden Globes was based on an uncomfortable reality: that Asian and Asian American experiences still aren’t considered American. And I can’t think of a more “American movie” about the proverbial American dream that touches upon American ideas of religion, class, and family than Minari this year.

Meanwhile, Glenn Close can do some hilariously horrendous poverty cosplay in Hillbilly Elegy and generate buzz and think pieces about what that movie and book say about “real” America.

Emily: It’s fascinating that the stodgy Academy seems to be moving in the right direction on this, recognizing more and more films in a language other than English (and even giving Parasite Best Picture last year) and correctly recognizing that movies like Minari aren’t “foreign films,” since they’re made right here. And as that’s happening, the Golden Globes is moving ever more toward stodginess in this and many other matters. (The Globes, after all, got the Green Book and Bohemian Rhapsody awards train running a couple of years ago.) It’s the reverse of what you might have expected even 10 years ago.

But I think it’s a telling example of how the Academy has started to think about cinema as a global enterprise — even if the Oscars will probably always think of that enterprise as being centered on the United States — while the Globes are so intent on not seeing past these shores that they can’t even recognize movies made here in a language other than English. In the big picture, this doesn’t really matter, but it is kind of surprising to be a critic saying something akin to, “Well, you gotta hand it to the Oscars!”

And the Oscars are right to embrace Minari, not just because it’s great (which it is) but also because its coming-of-age narrative is the sort of thing the Oscars have increasingly embraced as a way to honor all sorts of experiences that they haven’t really centered before this last decade. That everything from Moonlight to Lady Bird to Minari more or less fits the “coming-of-age period piece” genre I’ve just described shows how versatile it is. Growing up, after all, is one of the few things all human beings have to do, and we can find commonality in it even when the specifics might be different.

But I also hope the Academy ventures beyond that genre when recognizing stories about communities that have rarely been at the center of “Oscar movie” discourse. Last year’s victory for Parasite — a wildly entertaining thriller that doubles as a critique of capitalism — bodes well in this regard, and I hope the Oscars keep moving in that direction.

A Korean man and a woman stand in an embrace.
Yeri Han and Steven Yeun in Minari.
Josh Ethan Johnson/A24

Alissa: Not to toot my own horn, but I did have a great conversation with Walt Hickey, who writes about the awards from a statistics and data perspective, about how the changing makeup of the Academy hit an inflection point this year and starts to explain some of the shifts Emily points to above.

Okay. So we all love Minari. If someone else told you they loved Minari, what might you tell them to see, read, or experience as well? Did it bring anything to mind for you?

What to watch and read after Minari

Alex: I mean, for me there are a lot of parallels with one of my favorite all-time movies, Giant, about Texas, race, society and identity, and James Dean being rude about oil. Minari and Giant are separated by decades and maybe don’t look similar on the surface, but in terms of scope about the promises of American prosperity, the reality of said prosperity, and the future of the American dream, the two films speak the same language and are part of the same legacy.

I also kept thinking about the Netflix series Master of None. That show, created by Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang, was about a lot of things from episode to episode, but one of the throughlines were kids realizing their parents’ journeys. For Ansari’s protagonist, Dev Shah, and Shah’s friend, Brian Chang (played by Kelvin Yu), a few episodes focus on their coming to terms with their parents’ immigration to America and what that identity means.

Emily: I might recommend Apple TV+’s Little America, a frequently terrific anthology series telling the stories of American immigrants who moved here from all over the world. (I should also point out that Little America is produced by Epic, which, like Vox, is owned by Vox Media.) Another TV series that tackles the immigrant experience, albeit from a wildly different point of view, is FX’s spy drama The Americans. I don’t know that it’s the most natural overlap with Minari, but it’s fantastic, and everybody should find an excuse to watch it.

In the world of film, there are a ton of amazing coming-of-age stories that might be enjoyed by Minari fans, but for some reason, I’m drawn to Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy, beginning with Pather Panchali. Ray’s films depict a young boy growing up in India amid poverty and other hardships in the early 20th century. Yet they capture a similar sense of the ways the horrors of our childhood are often understood by us as just how life is when we’re kids. Ray’s movies are among my favorites ever made, and if you’re just looking for another movie with kids trying to adjust to tricky living situations, they’d be a great pick.

Fabiola: Minari brought a couple of books to mind that I’d definitely recommend to someone looking for more. The first is Chang-rae Lee’s first novel Native Speaker, which is about a Korean American man trying to assimilate in American society. And he’s a spy (a connection to The Americans, Emily!), so there are many layers to the plot. Published a few years later (in the late ’90s) is Mia Tuan’s Forever Foreigners or Honorary Whites?: The Asian Ethnic Experience Today, which explores Asian identity in America more broadly, and what it means to become a “true” American.

For more recent works, I’d point to Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko, a powerful book about a Korean family that immigrates to Japan just before World War II (which we’ve covered here, here, and here). Lastly, a friend of mine recommended to me the essay collection Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning by poet Cathy Park Hong, which explores Asian American consciousness and identity with some cultural criticism mixed in — it’s on my list.

Alissa: I love that Alex recommended Giant! I’d also direct people back to the 2019 movie The Farewell, starring Awkwafina. The Farewell is quite different from Minari — it’s about a Chinese family, and it’s set in the present — but has a similar tone and mood, of humor and love and mourning.

And I also loved this reflection by writer Alexander Chee following his viewing of Minari. “Lee Isaac Chung said his family got his film mixed up with their own memories,” he writes. “I think a lot of us are having this experience.” And then Chee goes on to write about his own experiences. I was glad to see the movie through his eyes.

Minari is playing in theaters and available to digitally rent on platforms including Apple TV+, Amazon Prime, Google Play, and YouTube. It’s also playing in A24’s Screening Room. Find our discussions of the other 2021 Best Picture nominees here.

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