This article contains spoilers for “Minari.”
For Ruena and Rodolfo.
On one of those languid Sunday afternoons of childhood, when my Lolo and Lola would play their old VHS tapes of “Star Wars” and inevitably fall asleep, I would sneak downstairs and visit my grandparents’ faux-Philippines. To me, it was like the Emerald City set in the tropics, a castle of tinted reflection and teeming wildlife. In reality, it was just a greenhouse. Within those walls, I could see how my Lolo had used his precision as a surgeon to create a careful ecosystem. Even though it was definitely more humid than the muggy Virginia air surrounding it, the greenhouse’s fabricated atmosphere still didn’t get close to the climate of my grandparents’ original home in Ilocos Norte.
The greenhouse was meticulously designed, each pot positioned for maximum access to sunlight. I would stare for what seemed like hours at the dazzling display of Filipino vegetables I am only now learning the names of: sayote, kalamansi, upo, ampalaya, sitaw. Around these burgeoning bulbs, orchid shoots would twist, confined and blossoming. Every now and then on these solitary adventures, I would go to the backyard and look at the greenhouse from the outside. The perspective shift would transform that entire Filipino world into a tiny geometric shed attached to a suburban home. I’d tiptoe around the terrace garden beds my Lolo had carved into the hillside. In the background I could see the verdant fields of Fort Ward, sometimes hearing barbecues or Civil War reenactments depending on the day.
According to my mom, my Lolo’s real desire had always been to be a farmer, but his family ridiculed him, calling it a pipe dream. They were poor: where were they going to get land? He went on to become a doctor, marrying my grandmother when they were both in medical residency at Connecticut. In my Lolo’s eyes, moving to Virginia and working in Woodbridge was a sensible choice to start his profession, but it also placed my family on a land fecund with historical legacies and relative isolation. No matter how many medical association banquets they went to, my family would be awash in a sea of white in their neighborhood. Titas and kuyos insisted that my grandparents stay in America and “wait things out” before returning to their homeland. The humid world of plants in the basement disrupted that chaos, creating a temporary refuge in what was supposed to be “home.”
With even more distance away from that place, I can see the family greenhouse through multiple valences. Was it an attempt to recreate the Philippines, to conjure the smells and tastes that were dwindling in memory? A miniature version of the life he would’ve lived in the Philippines? Was it a memorial to a place he could never return to, a permanent reminder of the Marcos dictatorship? Or was it a distinctly American expedition, the process of purchasing land and taming it to his will?
Was the greenhouse’s soil a grave for his past self? Maybe it was an attempt to have unrelenting control over life, when nothing in the world (at least politically) seemed to go to plan. Or maybe it was an act of devotion, spending hours upon hours to watch something grow and flourish. Proof of his success, despite the unnamable sadness that would occasionally seep, like mold, through the cracks of his American dream.
I’ve given up on resolving what the greenhouse meant to my Lolo. That kind of psychoanalysis can be misguided at best, and cruel at worst. What I do know is that when I walked into the space as a child, I felt enveloped by a deep sense of care. Care that could hold you tightly, intimately. But also care whose endless toil could drive you to the point of exhaustion, wondering why it was all worth it. Care that is unrelentingly, naturally beautiful as much as it is man-made and painfully constructed.
When my Lola’s physical and mental health worsened, my Lolo sold the house where he had resided for over thirty years. I haven’t felt that strange sense of care I felt in the greenhouse for over a decade. And then I watched Lee Isaac Chung’s new film “Minari.” In the dark corner of my bedroom, I could feel that muted sunlight, that aching tenderness once again.
Just as my Filipino grandparents moved from Connecticut to Virginia, trading in an urban city for a more rural lifestyle, in “Minari,” the Korean Yi family migrates from California to Arkansas. The Yi family arrives in a field surrounded by thick vegetation, miles away from any town. Jacob (Steven Yuen) sees this as an Edenic space, a tabula rasa where his past struggles are forgiven, a blank space where sheer labor will yield a bountiful life. Monica (Yeri Han) is more skeptical. She’s willing to indulge her husband in this new attempt at an American enterprise, but treats the move like a second immigration. Han’s wonderful, glassy-eyed stare at her new home—a tractor-trailer on wheels—betrays Monica’s feelings of both discomfort and warmth for this uncharted world.
Meanwhile, their children are delighted by the possibilities their new home provides. David (Alan Kim) is an exuberant kid whose playfulness often comes with a reprimand: due to a heart condition, he is banned from running or exercising. Anne (Noel Kate Cho) is in that awkward phase between childhood and her teenage years. She looks at the world askance while still enjoying daily cups of Mountain Dew.
The family’s relocation serves as both a business venture and a do-over for the Yi family. While Jacob and Monica spend their days sexing chickens, Jacob’s master-plan is to convert acres of his newly acquired untamed land into a farm for Korean vegetables, sensing an untapped market for Korean immigrants. But when a tornado threatens to sweep their house away early in the film (a dangerous omen or bad luck?), Jacob and Monica get into a heated argument about why they moved in the first place. Jacob retorts with the promise of renewal.
“We said we wanted a new start,” Jacob states earnestly. “This is it.”
“If this is the ‘start’ you wanted…” Monica says, her eyes flickering, trying to choose what to say next. “Maybe there’s no chance for us.”
That silence between Monica’s sentences, full of endless possibilities and the fear of everything falling apart, is what animates the entire film. It’s the contradiction of America, both pregnant and empty, that drives many Asian immigrant families including my own. Families like the Yi’s operate under a kind of constant indecision. It’s as if financial success and happiness (the two often eliding) might be blessed onto an immigrant family in a new world, but if not, then their familial ties will be irreparably torn. The chances of either situation coming to fruition are like the crops in Jacob’s field: no matter how hard Jacob labors, success or failure is dependent on things entirely outside of his control. The growth of success might be just as random as the weather; maybe there’s no chance for things to take root. Maybe there is.
After introducing this central tension, the rest of the film unfolds as an exquisite family portrait. Chung renders the Yi family’s cares and anguish in loving detail: Jacob’s farming, Monica’s spiritual search for peace, and David’s shenanigans are all given a chance to shine, though I would’ve loved to see more of Anne’s rapid maturation. Rounding out the family is Soonja (Youn Yuh-Jung), Monica’s mother who joins the family to help ease the tension, bearing gifts from home: money, card games, anchovies. Lyrical montages, set to Emile Mosseri’s lush score, connect the family together, their bodies intimately intertwined against the backdrop of wild land.
Youn, whose acting career in Korea has spanned decades, is undeniably one of the stars of the film, stealing every scene she’s in. Although Soonja’s not “a real grandma” by David’s definition—she’s prone to swearing, cheering wrestlers on TV, and other idiosyncrasies her grandchildren can’t comprehend—she’s nevertheless entirely devoted to realizing her family’s grand experiment. Youn practically radiates off the screen, allowing us to understand that Soonja’s deep affection for children is just another aspect of her fierce devotion to life.
Also notable is Yeun, who embodies an Asian American masculinity rarely put on screen: unabashedly confident but frustrated, assured in his own abilities while others raises concerns. It’s the type of performance too often deemed “understated,” when in fact Yeun is in complete control of Jacob’s complexity, embodying the self doubt that drives his ambition. Jacob comes off as simultaneously head-strong and meticulous, vindicated in his individualism while reliant on his family. There’s a sense that his feelings of exceptionalism are felt by other Koreans in the area. When Monica asks a fellow worker why a Korean church hasn’t been started, her friend says the reason they’re all out in Arkansas was to escape those kinds of communities.
While the film functions as a gentle family drama, Chung isn’t afraid to situate the story within a political context—the film is, after all, semi-autobiographical. The Yi family arrives in Arkansas during the Reagan presidency, even attending a small evangelical church. The white eccentric Paul (Will Patton) has a proclivity for exorcisms and speaking in tongues; he also carries around money from the Korean War, souvenirs from his time in the military. It’s later revealed another reason Soonja moves to America is because the rest of her family was killed in that same war.
In these small revelations, Chung frames his upbringing in a history often denied to him. They’re the kind of small details David and Anne won’t understand until they’ll plumb their memory as adults, discovering anew the ways in which American imperialism has shaped their lives. It’s only after his childhood innocence is gone that Chung’s conception of an innocent America can fade away, and he can finally rewrite the systemic oppression facing Asian Americans back into his life story. But in the 1980s of “Minari,” the shame that everything is dependent on hard work weighs heavily on the Yi family.
What emerges from this weariness, which creeps its way onto everyone’s sore bodies, is the inescapable presence of death. Death initially appears in the script as a kind of absurd joke, mentioned when male baby chicks are cast aside in the sexing factory, when Anne insistently warns of snakes, or when Soonja watches wrestling to enjoy its violence. But over the course of the film David (and thus Chung) becomes a keen observer of the precarity of life. David’s heart condition means that he lives in the constant fear that at any moment, he could drop dead for seemingly no reason. Just as his family might collapse at any second, so too could his body.
When David stays over at a friend’s house, he learns why his family can afford the farm: The previous owner committed suicide, and the land’s been considered cursed ever since. But most heartbreaking of all is when Soonja, after her greatest moment of fondness for David, wakes up unable to move or speak. She’s had a stroke.
Like with many moments in “Minari,” I wondered how Chung was able to capture an experience that seemed so specific to my own family, before realizing what afflicts the Yi family impacts too many other Asian Americans. A silent push-in shot of Monica tending to her mother in the hospital—a matrilineal, spiritual, and physical care being extended across generations—made me pause the film, since it was making me so emotional. It was only when thinking about that moment again, days later, that I understood the omnipresence of death in my own family.
My Lola suffered from many seizures, similar to Soonja’s strokes, during her lifetime. Like Anne, who must quickly learn to take care of David, at an early age my mom and tita were instructed on how to care for my grandmother. This is how you use a tongue depressor, they were told. This is how to get a ride home when this happens in public. This is how to administer the epilepsy pills and shots.
It’s the same type of care work my Lola herself would’ve practiced in her job. As a nurse, she would spend long hours doing geriatric care before her “condition” necessitated that she stay at home. The burden and joy of taking care of her was thus transferred onto the rest of her family. And although my Lolo probably won’t admit it, my family was constantly disappointed by the way primarily white doctors struggled to offer my Lola proper medication. This was all in spite of the fact that my Lola retained an unwavering faith in America’s hospitals and doctors. When doctors suggested my mother get an abortion, not being able to conceptualize how a small Filipina body could handle triplets, my Lola insisted that having three children at the same time was still safe. She claimed that medical science had gotten so good in America.
It seems like an unbearable irony, the fact that someone who dedicated their life to American healthcare system would end up being underserved by the exact same institution. But my Lola is part of a long line of Filipina nurses destroyed by their jobs.
The sheer scale of how prevalent Filipina nurses are in the American healthcare system is a fact that has been journalistically and academically investigated, especially when spurred by the children of these nurses. UC Berkeley ethnic studies professor Catherine Ceniza Choy studied this prevalence in her 2003 book “Empires of Care,” which argues that when America turned the Philippines into a territory and instituted “benevolent assimilation,” their attempt at “civilizing” Filipinos took the form of nursing schools. Cathy Park Hong’s 2020 essay collection “Minor Feelings” points to the Immigration Act of 1965 as a turning point in American history, when Asian immigrants were used as a Cold War political tool meant to prove that people of color could succeed under capitalism, a phenomenon that marked the origins of the model minority concept.
This past February, The Atlantic podcast “The Experiment” dedicated an entire episode called “The Sisterhood” towards exploring the impact of COVID-19 on a group of Filipina nurses who initially moved to Missouri together. The podcast shares that although Filipina nurses make up 4% of the entire nursing workforce, they count for 31.5% of nursing deaths during the pandemic. What all of these studies expose is the fact that the many Asian immigrants are brought to America for the sole purpose of working the most undesirable, dangerous, and necessary jobs in this country: the cursed land no one else will work on, that they will care for.
These studies make me feel paranoid, and deeply unsure of myself. How is the targeting of Filipina women for frontline pandemic work any different from the targeting of Asian women in the Atlanta shooting? The fact that six Asian women were brutally murdered in the same week that “Minari” picked up six Oscar nominations are two facts I struggle to hold in my mind at the same time. How can a country praise a socially constructed racial group while simultaneously destroying them? Maybe that model minority praise and subjugation are the same thing.
Even though “Minari” is a breakthrough in this year’s Academy Awards, it’s riding a wave of independent, Asian American filmmaking seeking to reveal the confusing blend of praise and destruction in this country. Like “Minari,” the entry-point into explorations of racial and trans-national identity in the narrative is through death and grief.
In “Columbus” (2017, Kogonada) the Korean Jin travels from Korea to Columbus, Indiana in order to care for his comatose father. His ambivalence towards Korea’s cultural grieving rituals evinces his ambivalence towards his Korean-ness and family. In “The Farewell” (2019, Lulu Wang), the Chinese Billi travels back to Changchun, China in order to see her Nai Nai for the last time—her grandmother has cancer but doesn’t know it. However, Billi’s true emotional breakdown only occurs when she confronts her mother about moving to America at a young age, and Billi can finally grieve the loss of her Chinese self. Although it was created before COVID-19, “Driveways” (2019, Andrew Ahn) already feels like one of the definitive American films of the pandemic. In it, the Vietnamese Kathy travels to suburbia in order to clean up her late sister’s house. That fact that Kathy’s son Cody experiences micro-aggressions due to his “sensitivity,” and also befriends the Korean War vet about to move to a foster care facility, expertly forebodes the anxieties many viscerally felt this past year. Even “Fishbowl,” the senior thesis short film by Annie Ning ’20, uses the death of family fish as a metaphor for a Chinese grandmother’s abrupt severance from her home.
What connects all these films is how they reveal the mourning as a centralizing force within the Asian American community. None of these films are necessarily “plot-driven.” None have shocking twists or jaw-dropping set-pieces. Instead, all of them hold their protagonists in a state of confused suspension, of the labor required to care for characters about to die, with intimate connection to these people as the only way of breaking a cycle of quiet violence. One might reductively call the tone of these films “meditative” or even “reserved,” falling into the trap of deeming Asian Americans emotionless. But the swelling grief wrung from these characters’ restrained actions directs attention at something else. Perhaps the abnegation required for care work is really the most emotionally devastating act of all, particularly for Asian Americans.
Even before these films started reaching audiences, the theatrical world was setting a precedent for stories about Asian American grief, particularly in the rural Midwest. In the play “BFE” (2003, Julia Cho), which had a 2018 Second Stage production directed by Annie Ning, an Asian family lives in “Bum Fuck Egypt” (the middle of nowhere). It’s only the prejudice against Asian women that saves the lead character of “BFE” from an even more horrific act of sexual violence than what is staged in the play’s climax. The magic-realist touches throughout the piece, like when a pizza delivery boy transforms into General Douglas MacArthur, touches upon the surrealism of American colonialism. My siblings and I did, after all, attend Douglas MacArthur Elementary, where every day we’d praise a military leader who used the Philippines as an American military base in WWII.
Similar to film, more stories of this nature arrived in the theater around the 2010’s. “Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them” (2011, A. Rey Pamatamat) follows two Filipino latchkey children: Kenny, who struggles with the language for his gayness, and Edith, whose brandishing of her second amendment rights betrays a deeper insecurity. Their Filipino identity might at first seem incidental, but it slowly provides greater stakes to a confined domestic drama (I was a dramaturg for the 2018 Second Stage production of the show). “Vietgone” (2016, Qui Nguyen) offers a more Asian-focused slant on the methodology of “Hamilton,” super-imposing modern slang and rapping as its stage language version of “Vietnamese” as it stages refugees traveling the American West. The play’s sequel, tracking the family’s growing assimilation into Arkansas, is entitled “Poor Yella Rednecks.” Even more recently, “God Said This” (2019, Leah Nanako Winkler) follows the mixed race Hiro as she travels back to Kentucky to take care of her Japanese mother ailing of cancer. She’s in many ways there to take care of her white father, who’s also suffering in isolation.
All of these plays use the full range of theatrical form, including music, humor, monologues, intercutting scenes, fantasies borne of desperation, and meta-addresses to the audience. All of this is in service of portraying the lives of Asian families living in rural America as anything other than “just like everyone else” or “Americanized.” The children of Asian immigrants in these shows must grapple with their inherited histories, and somehow live long enough to tell the stories that we, as audience members, are witnessing. These stories are not pleas for humanity as much as they are testaments to survival.
“Minari” arrives as one of the (hopefully many) apotheoses in the growing canon of Asian American independent films and autobiographical plays. Chung’s direction combines the film genre’s ability for highly focused, devastating imagery with the theater’s ability for restaging memory and ritual. The result is a piece that sends me reeling when Soonja resembles my Lola, shaken and confused; or when David looks on at Soonja’s minari plants in a creek with wonder, and I recognize the kind of man he will become. To me, “Minari,” has become a symphonic, sensory requiem for past lives we have lived, and the lives that have gone too soon. Watching it, I feel the love that all children of immigrants have felt. A love that is gentle and passionate, but also one that comes from an unbearable labor.
The climax of “Minari” involves a crucial turning point for both the family and the farm. They travel to Oklahoma City, a disorienting world of skyscrapers and concrete, in order to check in on David’s heart condition and see if they can find a new vendor for their Korean produce. It’s unsurprising, then, that David’s hospital would turn into a crucible for Monica and Jacob to finally confront whether they can stay together or not. These decisions, after all, do mean life and death for them.
For a brief moment, everything looks like it’s going to work out. David’s heart condition seems to be going away with no need for surgery, and Jacob arranges a profitable deal with a Korean vendor. But the unshakable fear that everything could have disappeared, that their existence is merely a game of chance, lingers with Monica. She can’t let it go.
“Things might be fine now,” she says to Jacob, the blank walls of a parking lot framing her. Tears well up in her eyes. “But I don’t think they will stay this way. I know this won’t end well and I can’t bear it. I’ve lost my faith in you. I can’t do this anymore.”
“Okay,” Jacob replies. “It’s done.”
When the Yi family arrives home, they discover that an accident has caused their barn to catch on fire. Their luck has run out. Jacob and Monica try helplessly to recover months, even years of hard work, before succumbing to the wreckage that is their life. They admit to themselves that there are some things that cannot be saved. Soonja stumbles away from the barn, going anywhere, anywhere but where she is.
At some point my Lolo and Lola succumbed to the wreckage of their life. After a few of the most tumultuous years of their lives, my Lola’s condition worsened to the point that she needed intense medical care, hardly being able to open her eyes. My Lolo, tired after years of taking care of her independently, resolved that moving to the Philippines would be the best thing for them: The warm weather would be helpful, the care workers required for my Lola would be cheaper, and they would be served in ways that America simply couldn’t provide. They moved away, and I lost the greenhouse in my life.
My Lola died a few years later in 2018, during my second semester of college. My Lolo finally achieved his dream of becoming a farmer, using his retirement savings to create huge gardens and fields of crops on newly purchased land. I’m not sure whether he would say he achieved his dream in spite of or because of America.
I think about all the Filipina nurses who died serving patients in America because of COVID-19. The disastrous afterlives of America that will follow their families wherever they choose to live next. Just like Monica and Jacob, these families are left wondering if everything they’ve worked for was in vain, if the allure of American promise simply masked a country that would be eventually far more damaging than their homeland. In that “Sisterhood” podcast, a Filipina nurse recounts questioning her life in America after her close friend and coworker died from the pandemic.
“My husband and I and a couple of friends said, ‘do we go back home?’” she says. “Dual citizenship? Canada? It is a disappointment but my children are here. We will get through this…and you want to believe that it’s a great place to live, but from an immigrant, yes it is a disappointment.”
Despite the fact that Monica says she’s lost her faith in her husband, and despite the fact that Jacob states that “it’s done,” the end of “Minari” is an ambiguous one. We don’t know if their family structure will change, or how they’ll even pay bills in the next month, but we see the Yis together, tending to what little growth on their land remains. Disappointment begets something stranger, even more delicate than what came before.
It reminds me of an exchange between Hiro and Sophie, the two Asian sisters of “God Said This,” when attempting to understand their parents. Sophie explains to Hiro that their father had different ways of expressing his care for his family other than words.
“I forgave him by paying attention to his language of love,” she states. “People have different ways of loving. And dad can’t love with his words. Most of the time. But he shows lots of love and remorse through his actions.”
Just like there might be a myriad of ways to express love, I think that “Minari” proves there are just as many ways to express heartbreak. It can look like the Filpina nurses in “The Sisterhood” remembering the epic dance moves of a friend who died from a plague. It can look like my Lolo, moving back to the Philippines to start all over again. It can look like Soonja, wandering an empty road, her grandchildren running to catch her. It can look like me, sitting alone at my computer on a rainy day, writing a requiem for the people who are long gone, or who have already been forgotten, or who were never known in the first place.
Nathan Pugh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @nathanpugh_3.