Watching 'Minari' with my immigrant parents showed just how little we know one another
A couple years ago, I tried watching Game of Thrones with my parents — made them watch it with me, I should say, as a kind of experiment. My ostensible goal was to write about it for work, but the real goal was to connect in some vague yet meaningful way with my mother and father, who’d left Taiwan for graduate school in the American South in the 1960s, after the U.S. eased immigration restrictions, and ended up sticking around to raise a family and then sticking around quite a bit longer, to retire and host their adult children and grandkids several times a year.
No surprise, my parents did not take to the show. “Too many evil,” said my mother, “and too many scam.” My father summarized it thusly: “Stupid people watch stupid movie.” Still the story turned out fine. More than that, I felt a germ of new appreciation for my parents, who were so willing to help me, simply because I had asked — that was all they needed to hear. After giving the best years of their lives to supporting my sister and me, what was another few hours of nudity and dragons? Still I was left with a nagging, hollowed-out feeling: We weren't any closer to the shared revelation that “so closely approximates the truth,” as Kafka wrote, in Letter to His Father, “that might reassure us both a little and make our living and our dying easier.” (Never mind that Kafka didn't actually send the letter — he’d passed it off to his mom who deemed it undeliverable and gave it back to him. So much for easier living and dying.) Anyway, I hadn't bothered to wonder whether my parents even wanted such a thing — maybe they would find it stressful, or confusing — who could tell?
Some months later, I made my mother watch something else with me, Edward Yang’s sublime Taiwanese family epic Yi Yi. I remember feeling let down afterward. Rather than appreciate the film’s majestic form and quiet sense of drama, or its painterly shots of Taipei, where she’s from, my mother fixated on minor details: the eight-year-old son’s encounters at school, what he’s up to with his camera. (Taking photos of the backs of people’s heads, it turns out, which amused my mother: “Ah, shǎ guā!” — Mandarin for dumdum.) It brought to mind my father’s reaction to the “Parents” episode of Master of None (another example of these gently coerced viewings). Unmoved by the spectacle of adult sons wanting to bond with their immigrant parents onscreen and off, he’d scoffed at the inaccuracy of an actor’s Cantonese accent in rural Taiwan. “I prefer more realistic shows,” he declared. “Like Madam President and Blue Blood.”
And yet here we were in 2021, with me employing that same tactic, expecting different results, like Charlie Brown and the football. Could Minari, the celebrated film about a Korean American family’s struggle to eke out a life of their own in 1980s Arkansas, be the one to bring us together? In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, director Lee Isaac Chung described screening his semiautobiographical film for his father, who tersely responded, “Good movie” — then walked out to gather himself. “He came back and we hugged for five minutes,” said the filmmaker, apologizing for his cracking voice. “I think he felt that I understood him.”
Steven Yeun, who plays the film’s resolute protagonist, a chicken sexer turned farmer-slash-father of two, spoke of a similar moment with his own Korean immigrant dad: “Every time I talk about it, I’m just, like, crying about it, you know? Because I think my dad felt seen,” he confessed to Jay Caspian Kang, writing for The New York Times Magazine. It was a distance, Yeun said, “that took 36 years to bridge.”
* * *
That was how, over a series of frigid nights in February, with COVID-19 keeping us 750 miles apart — me in half-shuttered New York, them in not-far-from-usual South Carolina — I found myself repeatedly on the phone with my own Asian immigrant father, trying to arrange a distanced viewing with him and my mother: because I wanted us to all cry together. I had gone in expecting more administration than usual, but I hadn’t expected a month of Sisyphean hassles — obtaining a screener from the helpful, patient publicists; obtaining refreshed screeners from other helpful, patient publicists; calling and texting to check if my father had received said screeners (“I don’t have the movie link anymore,” he texted); devising how to “Chromecast” to his gewgawed TV — when one night my father called to say they had finished dinner and decided to start the movie early and that he and my mother were now 10 — no — 30 minutes in. I rushed to my laptop and asked him what time it showed on the video player.
“No time,” he replied.
I suggested we switch to video, so I could observe their reactions, then asked if he could adjust the camera. The unpopulated video darted around as the audio rustled and rattled.
“OK,” I said. “What do you see onscreen?”
“The mother and the boy are talking,” he said. Then: “Little boy and Grandma at the creek.” I slid the button on the video player, trying to sync up the dialogue. Again the video from my father’s phone skittered. I saw their ceiling followed by an up-close gray nothing as the phone transmitted a series of increasingly loud squawks.
“You don’t have to keep adjusting the phone."
“Nobody’s adjusting anything,” he said, peevishly. “Phone move by itself.”
The thumping and juddering grew.
“I can’t take it anymore!” I blurted out, instantly regressing decades. I wondered, not for the first time: Are there people out there with normal, functional families able to spend any amount of time together, and not, to quote Frank O’Hara, bear the fruit of screaming?
I suggested we try again after I got some food in my system.
“No,” he said. “Phone about to die.”
“Why don’t you charge it then?”
“No,” he repeated. “Take six hours.”
“Are you joking?”
My father, a retired chemist with nine patents to his name and whose philosophy on life could be distilled into “some things you just have to,” grunted out repeatedly through the years, did not take the bait. Instead he remained calm, a new occurrence.
“No,” he offered, simply.
* * *
So it goes. The days pass — there’s a terrifying snowstorm in Texas, TikToked into my feed at work. A nationwide surge of attacks against people who look like my parents and me and the actors we keep trying to watch. A lawyer is turned into a cat on a Zoom call. Our next couple viewing attempts are no more successful: one or both of our screening links is expired, or it’s too late, or my mother’s hearing aid’s battery has again died. On these calls my father and I end up discussing other things: the weather, work, hearing aid logistics — these hardly remarkable everyday chats undertaken as if we were a pair of coworkers, assigned to the same thankless task who, despite their differences and without recognizing it, become friends. One Sunday night he texts me: “Are you going to watch super ball today?” Of course I know what he means. And for about an hour — sports, ads, people talking about sports and ads — we take it in.
* * *
The helpful, still-extremely patient publicists again freshen our links, but when I text my father, he says he hasn't received anything. Another exchange ensues: I ask if it’s in the old email; he says maybe he deleted it; I suggest searching the distributor’s name, A24; he says back, “80 what?” Eventually he lets me root around his NetZero account and I unearth the link, ten or so emails down, marked “already read." Getting ourselves synced up is just as satisfying as you would imagine.
Onscreen we are shown the film’s serenely observed details, its naturalistic pacing and dialogue, its striking golden light and unexpectedly religious tones. Shrewdly, the movie plays an immigrant’s imperfect grasp of language for both laughs and pathos. When the assimilating young son (played by a charming Alan Kim) is doted on by his foul-mouthed FOB grandmother (an irresistible Youn Yuh-jung) — “pretty boy, pretty boy,” she coos in a thick accent — he wrenches himself free with the outburst: “I’m not pretty, I’m good-looking!” And the grandmother is left cross-legged on the carpeted floor. It's a beautiful, layered moment. She laughs yet her mouth stays open — she's a little stunned. But is it pain, or is it insight, or is it something escaping words?
I ask my father: “Was there anything that reminded you of your own experience as an immigrant in the South?” “No, not really,” he says.
Although my mother is especially given to talking at the TV, here she’s been unusually quiet, absorbed in the narrative, except for when she exclaims, “Ai yō, she take money from there!” during a scene where the grandmother pulls from the church donation basket — an affront to my mother’s devoutly Catholic sensibility. My father, on the other hand, goes in and out of the frame — I can hear his voice from the other room. He’s distracted — tidying things up, wiping down the counters, tossing some papers into the cardboard box he’s saved for recycling. At one point, he crouches down to use the mini-vac. But even then I note the convergences: how his grunts and groans overlap with Steven Yeun’s Jacob’s as they perform various physical tasks, how my mother’s clanks and clinks while eating intermingle with Yeri Han’s Monica’s as she washes the dishes and sets the table. A soundscape of dutiful domesticity, grit-teeth grit. Their fighting sounds familiar to me, too.
* * *
Afterward, I want to interview my parents together, but my father says, “Ask your mother,” and when I bring it up to her, she says I should talk to him “by himself.”
So I call them up them, one-by-one. I put it to my father first: how’d you like the movie?
“It’s OK,” he says. “You know. It’s watchable.”
I try a different tack. “You don’t think it’s interesting that they made a movie about an Asian American immigrant experience?”
“It’s OK,” says my father, still unimpressed. “You know there are many of those kinds of movies. I haven’t seen a real good one. You know, there’s sisters from China, I think. First or second generation — then they have a third generation. Pot Luck...?”
“You mean Joy Luck Club?”
“Yeah, Joy Luck Club. That was rated pretty high,” he says. “I didn’t think it was that good. It was OK.”
I ask, “Was there anything that reminded you of your own experience as an immigrant in the South?”
“No, not really,” he says. “It’s different. He worked for himself; I worked for somebody else. You know, I didn’t have too much up and down. It’s more just steady work. The only thing remind me is he has the confidence in himself. I have confidence in myself.”
“Nowadays I like a good comedy,” said my father on one of our many, many calls. “Or Western. Like Shane,” he said, pronouncing it Sean.
Laughing, I continue to press. “Do you think that’s common to being an immigrant who moves to the U.S.?”
“I don’t know,” he says. “Most people I know, very few have confidence in themself.”
I tell him about Chung and Yeun and their fathers, how the film helped them all to relate.
“Really?” he asks, voice softening.
“Yeah. Isn’t that interesting?”
“Yeah,” he allows. “Maybe they have different experience.”
I get my mother on the line. “Well, it’s a good movie, but it’s sad,” she says. “Everybody try so hard to do their best. When I look at it, I just feel sad. Because the immigrant people have lots of adjustment to do.”
She adds, with some approval: “I think religion is good for them.”
I ask whether she saw herself at all in the movie.
“Not really,” she says, a bit pensively. “Because I can speak English. And I was in good health and I can hear and I was not ugly. Not like now. So I was fortunate. No one discriminate against me. I was a professional,” she says, a reference to her job as a librarian that she left four decades ago to raise my sister and me.
“I thank God I stay home, take good care of you and Rosa,” she continues, returning to the subject she always returns to. “You two are very good from the beginning. People think you’re very smart. You know, so you have good start. Don't you feel that way, too?”
* * *
Shuffling between rooms in Brooklyn and Queens, replaying our conversations, I felt uncertain. Here I was, thinking of Minari as a film more akin to my parents’ lived experience in the American South than any I’d come across, but they refused to see it that way. What Tolstoy wrote about happy families being alike and unhappy ones being distinct, felt true — and, like many true things, painful.
Yet I was surprised by the extent to which my parents sought to distance themselves from the characters onscreen — emphasizing the class divides in particular. Was it because they could all too easily see themselves in these roles, burdened with sacrifices and unimaginable homesickness, traversing the gulfs between them and everyone around them, including, especially, one another and their all-too-Americanized children? I wondered whether they felt compelled to point out how these characters still failed to capture them, so that their lives could remain elusive and, because of that, dignified, and free.
Maybe it was a need for autonomy, the freedom to make their own narratives outside of Hollywood representation — or anyone else’s representation, including their writer son’s — that flung them so many thousands of miles and time zones away from where they were from and, paradoxically, kept them locked together.
* * *
There is, I almost forgot, one other movie: Crazy Rich Asians, which my cousin took us to see in 2018, at a multiplex outside San Francisco. It hadn’t been my choice or my father’s, just something to pass the time before we all met up for the big family dinner, and the movie itself was fine — flawed but fun, and good as hell to know people everywhere, Asian and non-Asian, were actually watching it. During the climactic scene, when our plucky heroine wins over her fiancé’s disapproving mother with some expert mahjong, I was startled by a ragged sound coming from the seat beside me, halfway between coughing and gagging, when I realized I was hearing the violence of my father’s weeping, the only time I have ever heard him cry, and I was crying too.
The catharsis I’d been seeking was, of course, right here all along. But we said nothing. Before, it hadn’t been enough; now, it was too much. When the movie was done, we silently exited the theater.
* * *
“Minari is about a family,” the director Chung said in a winner’s speech after taking home the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film, an iffy categorization that raised questions over who gets to be considered American — and, implicitly, who doesn't. As Chung spoke, he cradled his elated young daughter while his wife hid offscreen. “It’s a family trying to learn how to speak a language of its own,” he said to an audience of millions. “It goes deeper than any American language, and any foreign language. It’s a language of the heart.”
For me, watching movies and TV shows with my parents was less a way of trying to speak a language together than trying, and failing, to impose my own language on them. I had tried and failed to share in a cinematic experience with them, not dissimilar to how they had, like so many well-intentioned first-generation parents before them, tried and failed to nudge me into each of those by-now-familiar archetypal roles: doctor, lawyer, engineer. Some things we just didn’t see eye to eye on, divergences in the DNA. (“Nowadays I like a good comedy,” reflected my father, on one of our many, many calls. “Or Western. Like Shane,” he said, pronouncing it Sean.)
And, really, wasn’t this fine? If Minari is in the end about any one thing, maybe it’s about accepting life as it is and not as you want it to be, and sometimes — often — that’s not what you planned or what you would have even wanted. But there it is. You can pour effort and water into the ground, but that doesn’t mean the crops will grow or you’ll sell them if they do. Likewise you can pull and tug at a person but that won't get you any closer, necessarily. But you can choose to keep trying, and to keep listening. And, if you’re lucky, sometimes that’s just enough.