‘Minari’ Shines a Spotlight on Asian American Farmers

The film chronicles the journey of a Korean American family farming in 1980s Arkansas, and resonates with farmers who see their own experiences reflected.

A still from the film Minari of a Korean American family. (Still courtesy of A24)

A still from the ‘Minari.’ (Photo courtesy of A24)

David Paeng can’t pick just one part of the new film “Minari” that resonates with him. As a Korean American farmer, he relates to every scene of filmmaker Lee Isaac Chung’s drama about a Korean immigrant who moves his family from California to Arkansas to start a farm.

“Culturally, the subtle nuances, the interactions between the mother-in-law, wife, husband, and kids—it’s all exactly the same [as my experience]” said Paeng, the farmer at Serenity Farm in Lucerne Valley, California. “I totally relate.”

Paeng left Korea for the U.S. as a boy and understands what it’s like to come of age in a “straight-up Korean” family. His parents punished him the same way that the parents in “Minari” discipline their son, David (Alan Kim). And, like the film’s protagonist, Paeng grows a crop (jujubes) popular with immigrants. He also takes the time to teach his child about farming.

A poster from the film minari showing an asian american boy in a farm field

Minari poster courtesy of A24.

“Minari,” he said, “was very well done, very tastefully done.”

Paeng is far from alone in this regard. Produced by Plan B Entertainment and distributed by A24, “Minari”, which opens nationwide today, has racked up nominations from the Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild, and Critics’ Choice Awards. But Asian Americans say they don’t see it as just another prestige film. Rather, it’s a movie that represents their experiences, which Hollywood has historically marginalized, although a smattering of 21st-century films about Asian Americans—from “Better Luck Tomorrow” and “Saving Face” in the aughts to “Crazy Rich Asians” and “The Farewell” more recently—have won critical acclaim or box office success. Set in the 1980s and inspired by writer-director Chung’s upbringing, “Minari” also points to the nation’s long but often overlooked history of Asian American farmers.

“In terms of visibility and broad Asian American representation, it’s such a big movie,” said Kristyn Leach, a Korean American farmer who oversees Namu Farm north of San Francisco. She hopes audiences leave the film curious about why the history of Asian American farmers has been “discredited” and made invisible. “Especially in California, there are lots of Asian American communities that really built the industry of agriculture and our state to be what it is.” In fact, California is home to a greater share (roughly 28 percent) of Asian American farmers than any other state, which is why the farmers we interviewed for this story all happen to be based there.

A24 recently held a virtual screening of “Minari” with the Asian American Farmer Alliance to center the experiences of immigrant farmers. The National Farmers Union also held a discussion about the movie to highlight the concerns of such farmers. While the film is particular to Asian Americans in some ways, it is a universal farming movie in others, for “Minari” touches on planting methods, technical problems, mental health, and rural life. Ultimately, however, the movie is about family and the sacrifices required to achieve the American dream.

The Film’s Portrayal of Agriculture

“This is the best dirt in America,” declares farmer Jacob (Steven Yeun) in an early scene of “Minari.” Conversations about the quality of dirt in Arkansas, the low cost of acres on the outskirts of town, and how far apart to plant crops signal that the film doesn’t relegate farming to the backdrop but instead treats it as a central character. Jacob’s well becomes the focus of one storyline, and some scenes depict a character dowsing or using divination to find groundwater. The unconventional strategy does not impress the highly rational Jacob, determined to use his mind to solve problems. Paeng said he saw the water diviner as a “quack,” but also noted that water problems trip up every farmer eventually.

Leach said she connected most strongly with the scene in which Jacob broke ground on his farm. She felt the character’s elation and optimism, but she also felt concerned for him.

“The practical farmer side of me was worried for this character,” she said. “The other side [knows] that . . . when you’re starting a farming venture, you’re just like dreaming so much and that aspiration and naivete is really useful. It was such a perfect thing to capture.”

A cropped version of the Minari poster showing an asian american farm family. Poster courtesy of A24

Minari still courtesy of A24.

Even small details in the film stood out to Nikiko Masumoto of Masumoto Family Farm in Del Rey, California. A fourth-generation Japanese American farmer, Masumoto said that a scene showing Jacob and his daughter, Anne (Noel Kate Cho), washing up after a long day of toiling on the farm especially moved her. In addition to reminding Masumoto of her father, Mas Masumoto, and grandfather, it “really spoke to the memories of work,” she said. The children in “Minari” are grade-school-aged, much like Masumoto was when she learned how to drive a tractor. One of her first jobs on the farm was to stamp the sides of the wooden crates that her family hand-packed with peaches.

Although she’s neither Korean nor an immigrant, Masumoto said that she felt viscerally connected to her Japanese ancestors while watching the film and often wondered if her great-grandmothers felt as out of place as Jacob’s wife, Monica (Yeri Han), when they arrived in the U.S. as picture brides in search of a better life. She also found herself wondering about the Korean agricultural expertise Jacob brought with him to the U.S. while watching a scene in which his white American assistant Paul (Will Patton) tells him he’s planting crops incorrectly. During the men’s brief debate, Masumoto wondered about the origins of Paul’s agriculture approach.

“Are we talking about the culture of white-dominant farming in the United States, which has historically been about exploitation and extraction?” she asked. “I want to be in his head. What kind of farming knowledge is he coming from because I’ve never been to a farm in South Korea. I found that scene so nuanced in the unresolved questions of what is American agriculture, and what is the ‘right’ way to farm?”

The film suggests that the answer to that question lies with neither Jacob nor Paul but with Jacob’s mother-in-law, Soonja (Yuh-jung Youn), who grows the herb minari by a stream near the farm. She praises the water celery to her grandchildren, noting that it can be used to flavor kimchi, added to stew, or taken as medicine. Relying on her wisdom while choosing a spot to propagate the plant, Soonja’s farming model comes to play a key role in helping her family.

Mai Nguyen, AAFA’s founder and a first-generation Vietnamese American grain farmer in Sonoma County, California, appreciated that the film highlighted the importance of learning from one’s elders. She also appreciated that the movie underscores the many different responsibilities independent farmers juggle. They work as harvesters, cultivators, bookkeepers, and human resources specialists all-in-one, she said. And Nguyen could particularly relate to Jacob’s customer interactions, including one in which a client cancels an order without warning. In November, Nguyen suffered a similar experience when a bakery that had agreed to buy a certain amount of grain ended up taking only part of the order, leaving her confused truck driver with bags of unsold grain.

Thank you for being a loyal reader.

We rely on you. Become a member today to read unlimited stories.

“This sort of whimsy that customers have around the work we’ve put a year into and planned around,” Nguyen said. “It’s financially challenging and incredibly stressful.”

While the farmers Civil Eats interviewed overwhelmingly enjoyed “Minari,” they would have appreciated seeing more Korean crops in the film, because Jacob sets out to sell Korean produce to a Korean clientele. Instead, butternut squash, eggplant, bell peppers, chili peppers, and napa cabbage appear in the film. In one scene, Jacob packs napa cabbage in a box, “but the spotlight gets cast on this gorgeous little butternut squash,” Leach said.

Leach, who does specialize in growing Korean crops, longed to see perilla leaves and Korean varietals of mustard greens and chili peppers take center stage, though she did enjoy a scene where Monica receives a huge package of kochukaru (red pepper powder) from her mother.

“She has this moment of savoring the kochukaru, the smell,” Leach said.

It’s one of the few scenes in which Monica—who has begrudgingly left behind a Korean immigrant community in California to accompany Jacob to white rural Arkansas—experiences pleasure. Throughout the film, she and Jacob are both under enormous psychological strain, while attempting to make the farm a success.

How ‘Minari’ Takes on Mental Health and Racism

The mental health of farmers and their families is an implicit but important part of the storyline in “Minari.” In the 1980s, when the film takes place, a farm crisis occurred that saddled farmers with unprecedented debt, leading to the loss of tens of thousands of farms and to a spike in suicides. And while suicide is still a serious problem among farmers and farmworkers, and it certainly hasn’t lost its stigma, the public is more willing than ever to discuss it openly. In “Minari,” community members talk about suicide through hushed tones and innuendo, but it’s clear that a local farmer took his own life.

A still from the film Minari of a Korean American father and son. (Still courtesy of A24)

Minari still courtesy of A24.

Stress, anxiety, and financial instability all factor into the problem, according to Nguyen, who said that she’s known multiple farmers who’ve died by suicide.

Although Jacob doesn’t contemplate killing himself, the stress he endures is palpable. At times, it’s also unclear if his marriage will survive. Masumoto noted that he appears close to his breaking point in many scenes and that the film’s moments of pure joy are fleeting because there’s so much work to be done—an accurate depiction of farm life.

“Clearly his wife didn’t want to move there,” Paeng said. “She didn’t want to have anything to do with farming.”

These farmers told Civil Eats that their families constantly make sacrifices—from living in isolated areas to weathering wildfires. Farmers of color (and, of course, people of color generally) have also historically faced the threat of racism, the specter of which haunts “Minari.” Aside from the workers they find in a nearby chicken processing plant, Jacob and his family don’t encounter any other people of color in their community. They make an awkward visit to an all-white church, where a little white girl speaks to Anne in offensive gibberish that mocks the Korean language. But the child’s unwitting microaggression is the only one depicted in “Minari.”

In a February Arkansas Times interview, Chung said that he did not experience racial cruelty growing up in Lincoln, Arkansas. “When we’d go play basketball somewhere, I’d get made fun of by the other team and stuff. But in my own town, I was one of them,” he said.

In rural California, Asian American farmers experience their fair share of microaggressions, usually rooted in xenophobia.

Get the latest. Delivered every week.

We rely on you. Become a member today to read unlimited stories.

“I’m a Korean adoptee, but when people first meet me, there’s always the perception of foreignness,” Leach said. “Like if I work at the farmers’ market, the narrative that’s projected onto me is something always really different from what my life experience is.”

This “perception of foreignness” has even overshadowed “Minari.” Although it was filmed in the U.S. and produced and distributed by American companies, the movie is ineligible for a Golden Globe Best Picture nomination because more than half of the dialogue is in Korean rather than English. Instead of a Best Picture nod, the film received a Best Foreign Language Film nomination.

“This is a perfect example of the continuation of white supremacy in the art sphere,” Masumoto said. “Why on earth in a country as diverse as ours, should there not be films made in multiple languages that qualify for best film. It’s absolutely ludicrous. Shame on them.”

Off-screen, Asian and Asian American farmers have faced a long history of systemic racism. The California Alien Land Law of 1913, for example, denied Asian immigrants the opportunity to purchase farmland or enter into long-term lease contracts. It was then updated as the California Alien Land Law of 1920 and remained in effect until 1952, when the Supreme Court of California overturned the xenophobic legislation. Historians also say that white racial resentment toward Japanese American farmers in the state contributed to the forced evacuation of more than 120,000 Issei and Nisei (newcomers and first generation Japanese Americans) out of their homes and into internment camps during World War II.

“Almost 50 percent of Japanese Americans were involved in agriculture prior to World War II,” Nguyen said. “. . . Asian Americans have been really crucial to U.S. agriculture, even beyond our own communities.”

The AAFA recognizes the fierce discrimination Asian Americans in and out of agriculture have endured. The alliance held a panel discussion to mark the Immigration Act of 1917, which was enacted 104 years ago on February 5. The legislation banned Asian immigrants from the country, and the long shadow of its influence can be felt in recent Trump administration policies such as the so-called “Muslim Ban,” the border wall, family separations at the border, and aggressive deportations, the alliance contends. The members hope that “Minari” leads viewers to think more critically about the people who grow food in this country and about the plight of immigrants.

“We really want people who see this film to deepen empathy and incite action in support of immigrants and independent farmers,” said Nguyen.

Nadra Nittle

Nadra Nittle is a Senior Reporter for Civil Eats. Based in Los Angeles, she was previously a reporter for The Goods by Vox and was also on staff at the former Vox Media website Racked. She has worked for newspapers affiliated with the Digital First Media and Gannett/USA Today networks and freelanced for a variety of media outlets, including The Atlantic, ThinkProgress, KCET, and About.com. Nadra has covered several issues as a reporter, such as health, education, race, pop culture, and religion. In 2019, Enslow Publishing released her first book, Recognizing Microaggressions. Read more >

Like the story?
Join the conversation.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

More from

Farming

Featured

Popular

Op-ed: Monopolies In the Food System Make Food More Expensive and Less Accessible

stocking bags from a food pantry.

College Students Struggle to Enroll in SNAP—but Peer Support Programs Help

The Swipe Out Hunger team in 2020. (Photo courtesy of Swipe Out Hunger)

Major Meat Corporations Pay Millions to Settle Price-Fixing Suits

a tyson poultry truck delivers birds on the highway. Photo CC-licensed by Ed Kohler

The Coffee Shop Giving Homeless Youth a Chance at Success

Valarie Mckenzie at work in Wildflyer Coffee.