by Kyla Jiayi Zhao
[This review contains spoilers.]
One of my favourite subreddits (aka Reddit community) is Am I the Asshole? In AITA, netizens submit their stories for other Redditors to judge who is the asshole in a given situation. While watching Minari, I tried to apply the AITA framework to the characters and their story, but I realised it was impossible. Is Jacob the asshole for wanting to persist with his farming dream even if that means the family will be split up physically? Is Monica the asshole for expecting her husband to give up his farm and pursue a dreary chicken-sexing job for life just to keep the family together? No and no. There are so many nuances, in their relationship, in their dreams for themselves and for their family, and in life. And Minari explores these grey areas with a beautiful sensitivity.
The film does not shy away from confronting the hard truths of life. It unflinchingly lifts the rose-tinted glasses off the audience’s eyes to impress upon them how unexpectedly cruel and unfair life can be. Just when you think the Yi family has achieved their lucky break, they get thrown another curve ball. Just when you think they have turned their fortunes around and can finally take a breath, they are tossed back into the deep end.
Watching the movie made my heart ache for all five members of the Yi family. They press on, ceaselessly, in pursuit of their American dream, but it always seems to remain just slightly out of reach — a proverbial dangling carrot that promises no returns; years and years of slogging that might one day all go up in flames.
But these ups and downs in life are tied together with one golden thread: the at times frustrating, but always beautiful and touching relationships among the ensemble cast. We see the young boy, David, initially shunning his grandmother when the two of them are thrown together into a tight living space against his will, but gradually coming to see her as “a real grandma”. We see the young girl, Annie, being forced to mature much too soon, learning to care for her younger brother and ill grandmother while her parents are occupied with monetary troubles—this is a narrative that I think a lot of female immigrant firstborns can relate to.
We see Jacob and Monica fighting bitterly over their finances and jobs, but also the small moments of tenderness they snatch in between: when she washes his hair for him because his arms hurt too much after a day of backbreaking work; when he tells her she “looks prettiest when she’s happy”; and the most poignant scene of all: towards the end, when they realise money cannot save them and only they can save each other. The love that exists in the Yi family is quiet, mellow, heartrendingly pure—flashed across in small moments that sneak up on the watcher but stays on their mind long after the credits roll.
And finally, it is impossible to write about Minari without touching on the topic of cultural assimilation. There are so many scenes in this film that jumped out at me, reminding me starkly of myself and my own family. When Monica cried happy tears because her mother had brought chili powder and dried anchovies all the way from Korea reminded me of how every time I visit my relatives in China, they would press cartons of fruits and food upon me to bring back to Singapore.
The mix of Korean and English spoken within the Yi family and how the two children switch seamlessly between the two reminded me of a similar communication pattern in my own family (my parents came to Singapore from China before my brother and I were born). The joy on Monica’s face when she learned that there were other Koreans besides her and her husband at her workplace threw me back to the small spark of joy I experienced whenever I met another Singaporean in California after moving there for university.
How David learned to reconcile his American conception of a cookie-baking grandmother with his potty-mouthed, card-playing Korean grandmother reminded me of when I learned my parents showed their love not through hugs and “I love you”s the way white parents in Hollywood films do, but through bringing me plates of cut fruit while I study.
I cannot claim to relate to every aspect of the Yi family’s immigrant experience, but I caught glimpses that reminded me of how I felt as a minority newcomer in my California university, and how my parents must have felt when they left everything they knew behind to forge a future in Singapore for themselves and the family they would one day build.
The movie expressed everything I want to tell my parents but never dared to say—my gratitude for the sacrifices they made for my brother and me, for how hard they worked all these years, and my regret that I was not more understanding when I was younger of their difficulties as immigrants in a foreign land.