When Parasite won Best Picture at the Academy Awards last year (yes, it’s only been one year), it was an overdue, culture-shifting moment. As the only foreign-language film to ever win Best Picture, it was seen as a triumph for international flicks — not to mention South Korea’s illustrious cinema. According to Los Angeles Times film critic Justin Chang, Parasite had “dealt a much-needed slap to the American film industry’s narcissism, its long-standing love affair with itself, its own product and its own image.” Understandably, with all the fanfare around the historic win, less emphasis seemed to be given to the dark comedy’s critique of capitalism and what rewarding that might mean. But this year, Minari and Nomadland (two recently released films that have been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture) are tackling the toxicity of capitalism in their own ways. More specifically, they’re offering a sobering, alternative look at the American Dream — a concept that for so long has been lionized in cinema and elsewhere.
Minari, a delicate, semiautobiographical feature from writer-director Lee Isaac Chung, follows the Yi family: Korean immigrant parents Jacob (Steven Yeun) and Monica (Yeri Han) and their kids, David (Alan Kim) and Anne (Noel Kate Cho) — as they put roots down in 1980s Arkansas. While ambitious Jacob doggedly fixates on starting a farm, the Yis are soon joined by Monica’s eccentric mother Soonja (played by veteran actor Youn Yuh-jung), who arrives from Korea with gifts, medicine, and seeds of minari — a perennial herb that flourishes wherever it lands.
Chung’s sensitive script hits a sweet spot; it’s deeply heartfelt without being cloying, and reflective without wallowing in nostalgia. The film — which is easily my favorite this awards season — shines with sincerity and charming moments of levity. Despite being a specific, finely tuned story, Minari explores themes that are pretty universal: self-actualization, self-worth, our propensity to seek control (as flawed as it is human), and our duty to ourselves and others.
At the same time, it carries rarities. For starters, it’s a tale of immigrants that doesn’t center racism or other oppressions in its narrative. Moreover, Minari never prioritizes the white gaze or outdated ideas of what pleases (or even constitutes) a mainstream audience; most of the dialogue is in Korean — a realistic aspect of the film that led to its recent “Best Foreign Language Film” win at the Golden Globes, despite the film being American through and through.
The inaccurate labeling of Minari is unsurprising, as Asians are often wrongly considered perpetual foreigners; Lulu Wang’s The Farewell endured a similar fate last year. But the film’s miscategorization actually reaches beyond awards. Review upon review has summarized Minari as a story about chasing the American Dream, even though that was never the actual point. “I intentionally wanted to make a film about this family and not try to make it an identity piece. I bite my lip a little bit about it,” Chung told the New York Times last month. “I hear the American dream thrown around a lot [about Minari], and that could mean all kinds of things that I was intentionally not getting into with the movie. I feel like people don’t know how to look at films except through the lenses of the discourse that’s out there.”
The desire of Americans to appropriate Minari as an American Dream story is almost too predictable considering our self-obsessed, Western, settler colony culture (of course it has to do with America — doesn’t everything?). But in actuality, Minari avoids perpetuating the American Dream narrative and, in doing so, essentially pokes holes in the very idea. The film is not about the pursuit of the Dream but rather how one changes while navigating that path. In many ways, it’s an empathetic but well-considered critique of such changes and new priorities. At one of the film’s most heartrending moments — and there are a few — Monica and Jacob finally confront the apparent chasm between their respective values and goals. Monica asks, “So you’re saying we can’t save each other but money can?”
Minari is not about the pursuit of the Dream but rather how one changes while navigating that path.
When writer James Truslow Adams coined the term “American Dream” in his 1931 book The Epic of America, it held a much wider meaning than it does today. He described it as “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.” And if that’s too vague, he clarified, “It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order … regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”
Somewhere along the way, though, the American Dream became more of a Gatsbyesque pursuit. And although this revised Dream requires fewer — mainly materialistic — criteria to be satisfied, our reality still falls short. For most Americans, hard work doesn’t guarantee money or security or stability. Glass ceilings are barriers to upward mobility, and homeownership eludes many young people for a host of reasons. Opportunities for economic growth aren’t just scarce, but they’re also dependent on race, identity, and status. The cost of living is up, but wages aren’t (particularly after inflation). It’s no surprise the middle class — and any hopes for its prosperity — is eroding.
“I think we just have to be mindful of what that definition of an American dream is,” Chung told Deadline in January. “I think we are faced with a lot of definitions of that that are, frankly, unhealthy. I feel we see them crumbling right now in this country, letting people down in a way.”
Nomadland, the third feature from acclaimed writer-director Chloé Zhao, is a tale that lives in the aftermath of such crumbling. In the Golden Globe–winning road movie, we meet Fern (played by the inimitable Frances McDormand), a sixtysomething woman whose husband died. She’s houseless — “not homeless” — and living in her van after her longtime workplace, a gypsum plant in Empire, Nevada, shut down due to the recession. The film follows Fern as she seeks seasonal work throughout the breathtaking American West, all while on a healing journey to process her grief. Though Fern is a fictional protagonist molded by Zhao and McDormand, she’s also our entry point and guide into the real world of America’s nomadic workers, many of whom were left jobless after the recession (and many of whom are middle-aged or older). Adapted from Jessica Bruder’s nonfiction book of the same name, Nomadland features real-life nomads Linda May, Swankie, and Bob Wells — all of whom were featured in Bruder’s book and play versions of themselves in the film.
Like Zhao’s previous features, 2015’s Songs My Brothers Taught Me and 2018’s The Rider — the latter of which I especially implore you to see — Nomadland is a decidedly nonjudgmental film. It doesn’t attempt to sway or convince the viewer, but it instead presents a series of moments. It never feels exploitative — and while it depicts the intrinsic beauty of nomadic life, it doesn’t romanticize it. By letting nomadic workers share their stories, and following Fern’s pilgrimage, it becomes clear how capitalism has failed to serve this sector of society. You could even argue that the pursuit of the so-called American Dream is what burst the housing bubble and led to the 2008 financial crisis in the first place (thus establishing the conceit for Nomadland). The American economy’s reliance on capitalism — and the poverty it perpetually deepens — is ultimately what made many of these nomads “choose” their lifestyle, whether out of necessity, sheer will, or some combo of the two.
Nomadland actively disproves the idea that the Dream is paramount, or even requisite, to find meaning and fulfillment in life. When GQ asked Wells, a vandwelling evangelist, whether the film reflected the nomadic experience accurately, he confirmed: “I think it’s a great description of the healing that’s available in it. I think nearly all of us find our lives are richer and better for it and that’s certainly true of Fern.”
When Fern first sees Wells in the film, he’s giving a speech. “If society was throwing us away and sending us — the workhorse — out to pasture, we workhorses have to gather together and take care of each other,” he declares. Indeed, Nomadland is largely about choosing community over capitalism. And after living under the shadow of the pandemic, when we’re estranged from loved ones and have been failed by so many systems meant to protect us, the value of interpersonal relationships is at a premium while the accumulation of material wealth feels almost meaningless. “It really is about trying to train our minds to want less,” Zhao said in an interview with Deadline last month. “That’s the only way to happiness.”
Minari and Nomadland each shine a light on populations who are often absent from American imagery — groups that can experience isolation in profound ways. Considering how people from America’s rural regions and Republican-leaning states are commonly seen as a monolith, as well as how immigrants, farmers, older adults, and gig workers are all routinely treated as mere pawns in political rhetoric, the nuanced and human portrayals in both films feel new and overdue. They reveal faults in what American society typically values and what it discards or overlooks. This is particularly clear in their depictions of older people.
Nomadland’s plot, of course, revolves tightly around America’s aging working class; the nomads operate like village elders, imparting lessons and perspectives to Fern over the course of her odyssey. Fern herself draws on her past when she meets a young drifter and gently suggests that he use poetry to encourage affection with his long-distance girlfriend.
Nomadland is largely about choosing community over capitalism.
Minari, on the other hand, isn’t solely about older adults — for such a simple film, it embodies so much — but their importance is acknowledged (a “To All Our Grandmas” dedication is featured in the credits). Foulmouthed Soonja is unlike “a real grandma,” much to David’s chagrin; she’s lively, teasing, and lighthearted. She might not bake cookies, but she’s generous, holding little value for money (she insists on giving Monica cash when she arrives) and grudges, even when she’s the victim of a urine-related prank. Where others see weakness in David, who has a heart murmur, she sees strength. (“Getting hurt is all part of growing up,” she reminds Monica.) Throughout the film, Soonja seems like the only one who has a resolute grasp on what really matters.
“I think as [we’ve seen through the] last year during the pandemic, there’s a big problem with our societal value when it comes to how we view elders in this very capitalistic society,” Zhao told Yahoo Entertainment last month. “They are truly the most important part of a society because they have wisdom and they’ve lived lives and they have things to pass onto the younger generations. They’re very important — as opposed to dispensable because they can’t contribute to the economy. How we treat our elders says a lot about our society.” (That older Asians are most affected in the recent surge of anti-Asian attacks is a particularly ugly fact to face.)
Soonja drops some particularly sage insight while on a minari-harvesting outing with David. When he tries to frighten away a snake slithering nearby, she stops him. “It’s better to see it than to have it hide,” she says. “Things that hide are more dangerous and scary.”
Maybe that’s partly why these two moving films — markedly different but also seemingly in silent agreement with each other — have resonated deeply with American viewers and even picked up audience awards; they allow the unseen to be seen. They acknowledge uncomfortable feelings and hard realities instead of burying them. They face the falsity of the American Dream head-on instead of clinging to ideas of its attainability or even desirability. Minari and Nomadland each prove that there are better metrics to weigh success and find meaning in life. Making a living doesn’t necessarily teach you how best to live. ●
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