Some of my first initiation rites into American society took place in the vintage green booths of a Burger King.
It’s a bit of a guilty secret. As a four-year-old, I was a monthly frequenter. I counted down the days to my next reunion with a chicken sandwich and bounced in my seat when the serving tray floated over to the table.
There was always something exhilarating to it all, something mildly titillating about the American right to smother golden fries in ketchup and ask for seconds on the chicken nuggets. A small order of fries was enough to cover over half the tray once poured out. Coca-Cola trickled from the soda dispensers faster than red wine in Italy. At Burger King, you were met with something more than just the giddiness of greasy excess — a sense of unbounded, expansive possibility.
That’s what I felt watching “Minari” as the Yi family, who were Korean immigrants, settled onto a farm in the Ozarks. The farm’s size commensurates their father’s, Steven Yeun, starry-eyed ambitions; Indeed, the green-studded fields roll on without end, and in a way that almost overwhelms.
At first, we almost feel satiated. The movie is awash with all the cheap vestiges of American cultural capitalism. There’s hardly a scene without a jumbo bottle of Mountain Dew perched on the table. Like everything American though, the drink is undeservingly revered by the family and affectionately dubbed “mountain water”. A box TV dutifully blurts the weather report each morning over breakfast. At times, the Yis almost seem normal, like every immigrant family who chases after the American dream.
But America is unforgiving. “Minari” trembles always on the verge of disaster, and the moments of actual success are few and far between. The land — much like their financial prospects — is hard and dry. Grocery stores renege on supply contracts; the 1980s loan interest rates hike up; the parents end up balancing farm management with their menial chicken sexing shifts. We follow the family as they suffer from one hardship to the next in heartbreaking, unending succession. We realize that there’s a difference between making ends meet and succeeding. And the Yis fail at both.
The farm strains the bonds of family as cash runs thin and water even thinner. The fruits of their work go unreaped, crumbling figuratively — and later, literally — into ashes when their crop storehouse bursts into flames.
The final few scenes were chilling in both the size of the all-consuming fire and the swiftness of the loss. In America, there’s no promise that the months of backbreaking work or the years of unconditional love won’t turn into dust in just a single moment.
All it takes is the single strike of a match. A loan, a counterfeit $20 bill, perhaps just another run in the neighborhood. A bullet to the head.
In a land of intoxicating excess, life is somehow a luxury. It’s a commodity that slips out from our arms ever so slowly — that gets torn away at last by a knee to the neck or a round of gunfire before joining the long list of George Floyds, Hyung Jung Grants, Breonna Taylors and the thousands of now nameless others. We — all the dreamers — have been reminded of all the ways, some more subtle than others, in which the very act of being has always remained tantalizingly beyond our reach. We have been reminded of all of those moments when we feel the weight of all our living pressed against our backs.
By the end, the Yis pick themselves up again from the burnt embers of the wreckage. They search for water and till the fields. They begin the tiresome, tedious process of rebuilding.
Yet the irony of it all still stings. As if proving its own point, the American-produced film — featuring a full cast of American actors and directors — bewilderingly found itself consigned to the international film category for the Oscars this past weekend.
Its title is also something of a misnomer: minari is reputed for its ability to grow like weeds along the banks of the dirtiest streams. In some cases it’s even been discovered to purify the water. The plant itself packages all the Yis’ deep struggles into its own neat metaphor of rugged resilience and hardiness, wrapping paper, ribbons and all.
We should eat minari for its bright, peppery flavor and surprising health benefits. But we should never have to live like one.
HANWEN ZHANG is a first year in Benjamin Franklin College. His column is titled ‘Thoughtful spot.’ Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.