By: Christina Lee
“Korean people use their heads,” Jacob Yi says in Korean, his son David trailing behind him. Then in accented English: “We use our minds.” The duo walks across what seems like an endless field of grass below a cloudless sky, perfect for a farm.
The 2020 film Minari, written and directed by Lee Isaac Chung, follows the Yi family, headed by South Korean immigrants Jacob (Steven Yeun) and Monica (Han Ye-ri), as they relocate to rural Arkansas where Jacob hopes to support his two children, wife and mother-in-law by growing Korean vegetables.
A semi-autobiographical film based on Chung’s childhood memories, Minari took home the trophy for the best foreign language film at the Golden Globes this year. Chung shared his gratitude for his win, but he also hinted at what could be interpreted as lingering dissatisfaction, a sentiment shared by viewers and fans who understand what it feels to be “othered” in the United States.
“Minari is about a family,” Chung said in his acceptance speech. “It’s a family trying to learn how to speak a language of its own. It goes deeper than any American language and any foreign language. It’s a language of the heart.”
With this statement, Chung suggests that he too is very much aware of the controversy surrounding the movie and its classification as a “foreign-language” film.
Minari, the story about South Korean immigrants in the United States, had no choice but for its American film distribution company A24 to submit the American-directed and American-financed film to the foreign language category, as more than 50% of Minari’s dialogue is spoken in Korean.
“It goes deeper than any American language and any foreign language.”
The country that is home to the largest film industry in the world fails to recognize the inherent Americanness of its own movies. Instead, it resorts to arbitrary numbers to define what counts as “foreign enough” and therefore disqualified from competing against English-language films in a country that does not have an official language.
Chung knew that finding financial support for his movie about a deeply cultural experience would be hard in an industry still dominated by whiteness and one-dimensional narratives. However, thanks to Korean American producer Christina Oh, Chung found an ally in his mission to keep Minari spoken mostly in Korean.
While the film’s characters speak English from time to time, Chung addressed why the dialogue remains predominantly Korean, and his reasoning is personal. Chung described his characters’ Korean speech as the “sort of insular feeling that you have when the reality at home is different from the one outside.” Through this reality of bilingualism, Chung demonstrates that the dual experience or “twoness” is common among immigrant families, to whom a second language is not simply a convenient tool used to appeal to monolingual moviegoers for financial profit—it is an entire lived experience. The Golden Globes failed to acknowledge this.
“You really try to preserve some of that reality within your own family as you feel it slipping away,” Chung said.
The Korean American director and writer’s work is truly one of preservation, to uphold the truth about the immigrant experience through language, especially when Minari stars Korean American actors like Steven Yeun, who proves that the loss of home and one’s native tongue within immigrant families is an ongoing and evolving experience. Noticeable in interviews, Yeun’s improvement in the Korean language demonstrates that children of immigrants are still engaged in a constant relationship with their parents’ ways of communication and that “foreign” language is not a cinematic gimmick nor a static category title that demarcates narratives about the experiences of people who do not look like the white majority.
Chung also recognized the arbitrary nature of deeming something “foreign.” He said, “My grandmother, if she were still alive, she’d be very proud that I held through and did a film in Korean and didn’t compromise and then start using that foreign language of English.”
The subjective lens of “foreignness” easily allows for the country’s narrative to favor the white, English-speaking majority over multilingual Americans of diverse cultural backgrounds. Rarely is it acknowledged that English in America is just as foreign to immigrants and their children, who often learn their native tongue first, English second. To deem any language other than English as merely “foreign” hints at xenophobic tendencies to invalidate the sense of belonging and community of immigrant families, further establishing that their languages, cultures, and experiences can never be fully integrated into society.
Minari attempts to bridge this gap between “American” and “foreign.” Its actors—ranging from South Korean-born parents of American children to second-generation Korean Americans—exemplify the American experience characterized by these actors’ varying linguistic abilities. The Korean grandmother speaking broken English to the American-born child responding in flawed Korean is a living, breathing representation of the ultimate American experience for immigrants. What is foreign to one person is never foreign to the other. So what truly defines foreignness?
In retrospect, the tension between American and foreign feels nonsensical. A country built on immigration and cultural diversity should not devalue the very origins of the nation’s unique identity. Through films like Minari that portray the diverse lives of Americans, hopefully we will begin to realize that whatever seems “foreign” at first is more familiar than it appears.