Steven Yeun and Youn Yuh-Jung’s performances in Minari broke my heart in slow motion. Yeun, who’s played everything from a superpowered youngster to a working class revolutionary in a surrealist movie about people getting turned into horse monsters, deserves Best Actor. Youn, who has decades of Korean TV and film under her belt and recently spoke about how quarantine ain’t shit because one of her favorite activities is actually bumming around in bed all day, should win Best Supporting Actress. Yet even if they both clinch it, the Oscars will still be bullshit.
As somebody of East Asian descent who also loves movies, I’ve talked about Hollywood’s willful blindness when it comes to casting Asian actors and telling Asian stories before. Since that time, the impression I get is that Hollywood is trying to be more sensitive about things that are overtly or unintentionally racist. We even had a year with several movies that focused on Asian leads that ran the gamut of the kinds of roles any actor would love to get.
Looking at the history of the Oscars, though, reveals just a handful of Asian actors who have ever been nominated or won for their performances. Last year’s Best Picture winner, the Korean film Parasite, was anchored by several memorable performances that didn’t even receive a mention. (Only two people of color in all four of the acting categories were nominated that year, if you count Antonio Banderas.)
For actual awards winners, you need to go back to names like Yul Brynner (rest in peace) and Ben Kingsley (born 1943). The last East Asian woman to win in an acting category of any kind was Miyoshi Umeki for Sayonara ... in 1957, a film that next year will qualify for Social Security.
I hope that we’ve fully left behind the Mickey Rooney caricatures. What remains stubbornly out of reach is a Hollywood that will cast Asian actors in the kinds of roles that inspire the audience to identify with them, and then actually reward those roles with a shiny statue.
Minari is a film that does that, in every way I have wanted such a film. Jacob Yi (Yeun) and wife Monica (Yeri Han) have moved their two children to rural Arkansas so that he can pursue a lifelong dream of operating his own farm. The movie is set in the 1980s, but it feels like it could be set any time in the last century. It is a story of family, of hope, and most importantly of toil and the way it wears relentlessly on adults and children alike.
Jacob and Monica pull day shifts at a dark, dingy factory poultry farm when he’s not slowly trying to get his land planted and watered. Their job is to sex chicks, meaning to look at their genitals so they can be sorted into tasty egg-bearing females and males who are bound for the incinerator. Don’t become useless, Jacob remarks to his son, David (Alan Kim, in an amazing debut). The leaky trailer, unyielding land and grinding day job are too much, and eventually Monica’s mother (Youn) shows up to help, bringing with her foods and games from Korea that are strange to her American grandkids.
The movie spends time in the shoes of each member of the Yi family, but most of it is told from the perspective of Jacob and David. The boy suffers from a heart condition that has his parents terrified of his every physical exertion, and his mother’s fixation on praying that he gets to see heaven doesn’t always help.
Hardship is constant, and family strife is inevitable, but all of the story beats come off naturalistic and never hyperbolic: When Jacob and Monica have it out over the sorry state of their home, the kids write notes asking them not to fight on paper airplanes and throw it at them before scampering off. David and his sister, Anne (Noel Cho), struggle to fit in with local kids and don’t know what to make of their grandmother, who curses and plays cards and watches wrestling mostly to wring her hands over the violence. (My Chinese grandfather did this, and got really into it, and I had to pause the movie for a minute.)
The movie ends not with some fantastic reversal of fortune for the Yis—they’re still struggling, and in some ways worse off than they began—but with the news that the hole in David’s heart is closing, and the minari that his grandmother planted by the creek thrives. It will grow anywhere, despite everything.
My grandparents were old when I was small, and I couldn’t fathom their depths. My grandfather fled China before the war, and by 1962 found himself having to flee Cuba with the family he and my grandmother had started there. They did not look or sound like any of the grandparents of my friends, and their English was heavily accented and at times not completely fluent. It’s shameful to relate now, but these things led me to think of them as feeble, or easy to pull one over on. It was only as I grew older that I understood how completely I’d underestimated and disrespected them in my own mind, and in precisely what ways, because of my very white suburban upbringing. I am relieved that I grew quickly enough—in heart and in conscience—to have spent time with them after having overcome all that.
It is unlikely I will ever live again in a house where English words are peppered into sentences spoken in another language, as happened when we were being watched by my abuelita. But I remember the feeling of it.
Minari is the only movie I have seen in a long while that evokes any of that—these experiences that passed away after they died. It helps me articulate things closer to me than I can easily see. The story it tells is American, despite what the Golden Globes may believe. If the Academy sees fit to bestow awards on Yeun and Youn, it will be a historic and a deserved victory for them, but it will also highlight a century that has largely ignored these stories and the people who tell them.
Kenneth Lowe is going to make a big garden. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.