• 'Minari', directed by Lee Isaac Chung. (AFF)Source: AFF
Growing up, I was always a bystander when my parents argued about finances, and I’m a bystander again, catching intimate and familiar moments when Jacob and Monica argue about the same thing.
By
Shona Yang

11 Feb 2021 - 9:45 AM  UPDATED 12 Feb 2021 - 12:02 PM

My mum was 28 years old when she gave birth to me at St George Hospital. She arrived in Australia as a curious twenty-something and believed Australia to be the lucky country. After meeting my dad at a networking event in Sydney, she knew Australia would hold more opportunities for her children – the same way Jacob (Steven Yeun) and his wife Monica (Han Yeri) in the film Minari dream of a better life for their children in Arkansas, America. 

Minari is the latest film produced by A24, the same company that brought us Awkwafina-led film, The Farewell in 2019. The story follows the journey of a family in search of the American Dream. Although Minari is set in the early 80s in an abandoned farm in Arkansas, the Korean-American family of four made me think of my Korean-Australian family. 

For my immigrant parents, the early years of their marriage were an uphill battle, fighting language barriers and financial strain. In the film Minari, Jacob and Monica work at a chicken factory shorting through trays of baby chicks – the only job they can secure with minimal English and qualifications. The family’s eldest daughter is tasked with looking after her younger brother while the parents work. 

I smile knowingly at the sister’s obedience and the younger brother’s playful rebellion on the screen. As little David grows bored of reading with his sister, I chuckle at the memory of babysitting my brother when our parents worked late-night cleaning shifts in Newcastle. 

While my stepdad lugged a heavy industrial vacuum on his back and mum scrubbed down toilet seats, I was also in charge of entertaining my mischievous brother. We hid under desks and collected as many BIC pen lids as we could find. 

In Minari, Korean-American film director and screenwriter Lee Isaac Chung reflects on his own upbringing on a small farm in rural Arkansas, capturing the real yet unglamorous elements of the diaspora experience. And though the story is told from the point of view of six-year-old David, the film tenderly depicts the struggle and sacrifice of David’s parents, too.  

Growing up, I was always a bystander when my parents argued about finances, and I’m a bystander again, catching intimate and familiar moments when Jacob and Monica argue about the same thing. 

Watching Minari, as a 28-year-old, I understood the brokenness and hurt between Jacob and his wife, Monica. The expressions they shared on the screen as they fought about family, money and cultural differences, I remembered the same expressions I had seen on my parents’ face as their relationship strained under the pressure of everyday survival in Australia.   

Mum had the same expression on her face when she opened a gas bill marked ‘overdue’.

Mum had the same expression on her face when she opened a gas bill marked ‘overdue’. The same desperate expression appeared again when my parents wired the hundred dollar bills we desperately needed to relatives in South Korea. 

It was the look of concern and anxiety that is also familiar to many other Korean immigrant families who struggled to settle in foreign countries around the world. 

Arkansas may be miles away from Sydney or Melbourne, where the Korean-Australian community is predominantly based, but our stories of resilience, suffering and survival are intertwined into the story of Minari.  

The title of the film, Minari (미나리) is named after a common Korean herb that tastes a little like parsley. The water dropwort plant tends to thrive in its second season – after it has withered – it’s symbolic of many Korean immigrant families that have thrived despite adversity and defeat. 

When Minari premiered at the Sydney Film Festival in January, I watched the film with three other Korean-Australian friends, also the children of immigrant parents. We laughed at the way grandma Soonja (Youn Yuh Jung) ruthlessly tells David’s church friend her grandson’s ding-dong is ‘broken’ because he still wets the bet. 

When the predominantly white audience remained silent, we roared with laughter when David explained ‘Mountain Dew’ as ‘water from the mountains’, and again when he chose the shortest stick in the farm to avoid a beating.  

When the predominantly white audience remained silent, we roared with laughter when David explained ‘Mountain Dew’ as ‘water from the mountains’, and again when he chose the shortest stick in the farm to avoid a beating.  

“You win,” says Soonja. But we felt David’s victory too. 

When grandma Soonja arrives in America with a suitcase filled with chilli powder, dried anchovies and roasted chestnuts, I pinch my friend’s arm and whisper ‘that’s so true.’ We giggle because there are endless stories of our own halmonis attempting to bring suitcases of dried seaweed, soybeans and other ingredients through Sydney’s International Airport. 

But for the first time, these experiences that only existed in conversation and memory are embedded on our screens. 

The film’s final scene doesn’t give audiences the closure we want but it’s a real representation of our history. Yes, there’s hope and opportunity but many Korean-Australian families haven’t  enjoyed an easy road to success. Instead, our parents had to persevere and continue to persevere through hardships and failure in an attempt to make a home in Australia.

This is why I loved Minari. It isn’t a typical Hollywood blockbuster film but it’s the type of diverse and nuanced story that we need to be celebrate and support now more than ever. 

Shona Yang is a freelance writer and founder of Kozziecom – a platform that celebrates Korean-Australian stories. Follow Shona on Twitter @shonaasays.  

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