Most reviews of Minari, the Korean-American film about a family settling in 1980s Reagan-era Arkansas, describe the two-parent, two-child-plus-grandmother characters as “immigrants.” This is not accidental. Reviewers interpret the film as confirming their sentiments about the immigration crisis, even if it means overlooking that the characters actually are U.S. citizens. Fact is, Minari is a nostalgic, semi-autobiographical film, written and directed by Lee Isaac Chung, a Yale graduate who was born in Denver, Colo.
When reviewers condescend to Minari’s ethnic exoticism, it illustrates how political fashion continues to warp contemporary film culture. Reviewers (they’re not really critics) refuse to acknowledge that Chung’s tale is about all-American striving. Because reviewers prefer to see ethnicity first, they don’t recognize Minari’s stock narrative, its derivativeness, and the predictability that make it dull.
In fact, Minari is not foreign but distinctly Hollywood. The disagreement among young parents Jacob and Monica (Steven Yeun, Yeri Han) about relocating from Los Angeles to Arkansas turns the husband–wife tension into city–country banality. Jacob buys a farm to specialize in selling Korean vegetables and escape the drudgery of a California ranch where they both worked at determining the usefulness of chickens by checking their sex — discarding unproductive males. (Elite reviewers are so distracted from the world of work, they see no significance — or humor — in Monica’s preferring this form of peonage.) Meanwhile, the children (Noel Cho, Alan S. Kim) are too cute; and, worst of all, Soonja (Youn Yuh-jung), the non-English-speaking grandmother, wins reviewers’ affection for her Old World strangeness, since she is the most foreign and unregenerate — which is to say, least assimilated — character. It’s Soonja who plants minari (Asian celery) in a nearby stream.
Chung directs this story casually. His bland, narrowly focused observations include the family’s interaction with white Midwesterners at the local Christian church, another sign of the family’s assimilation, like the father’s partnership with a white religious zealot (Will Patton) — cooperation but less than friendship. (Statistics show that Koreans are as apt to be Christian as Buddhist.) Patronizing reviewers misread Chung’s informal style as eloquence or charm. But for alert movie-watchers, this lack of affect feels unimaginative.
The hackneyed political sentiment of Minari plays to the diversity-is-our-strength propaganda rather than an e pluribus unum (out-of-many-one) patriotic virtue. Call this the Minari effect. It reverses the basic American migration story, seen in such movies as The Grapes of Wrath (1940), Lost Boundaries (1949), and even The Dollmaker (1984). Hollywood has lost touch with the humanism that distinguished the class-struggle story in Jean Renoir’s The Southerner (1945). Reviewers also either don’t know the Renoir classic (the highpoint of the French director’s Hollywood tenure after escaping WWII Europe) or else have become indifferent to the genuine complexities of working-class life that expatriated Renoir understood so well but that Chung makes sappy.
Renoir’s empathy with impoverished whites is now replaced by 21st-century disdain for the white working class. Minari epitomizes Hollywood’s new progressive emphasis on nonwhite experience, even to the point of falsifying it (without mentioning the history of post–Korean War integration in the U.S.). Minari ends dreadfully, with the most unlikely chain of events and stacking-up of pathos that I saw in any film in 2020.
Never forget the role of Minari’s producer Brad Pitt in 12 Years a Slave as the ineffectual white liberal. Pitt’s production company Plan B has commissioned many of the least edifying films on modern racial politics. Plan B recently sponsored a Minari symposium called “Immigration and the American Dream,” hosted by California Democrats Senator Alex Padilla and Congresswoman Judy Chu, both willing to confuse the film’s subject, push the party’s agenda, and ignore that the film’s story is based on the characters’ need to escape repressive, unproductive California. Chung’s nostalgia is so vague on cultural specifics that the inexact presentation of Reagan-era policies proves that liberal sanctimony knows no shame. Or maybe that’s a deliberate Plan B.