The choice between art and violence in the stories of the South: Minari was an opportunity for Asians in the South to tell their stories. The Atlanta shootings changed that.

By Angie Hong 

It was a Monday morning when the 2021 Oscar nominees were announced to the world. The stunning and subtle film Minari earned six nominations, including best picture, and Asians all around the world cheered and celebrated, not just because it had earned recognition in the Academy, but because there was finally a nuanced Asian American story set in the South.

News that a distinctive Korean American movie was being made traveled around in our circles for months before it was released. There is a common joke that all Korean Americans, especially those in the church world, seem to have a one or two degree of separation from each other, and many of my friends were connected to the actors, screenwriters, director, and other members of the cast and movie team. We felt like we were watching our family members accomplishing something really big and important, and we felt a sense of pride at what was being made, not even knowing what it was really about. When I saw the trailer for the film, I realized that this wasn’t going to be a Crazy Rich Asians or an insert-action-movie-with-martial-arts film. Instead, I sensed that Minari was going to be a gentle unfolding of the Korean immigrant story in its nuances, complexities, beauty, and pain. And I didn’t want to watch it.

We are in a pandemic. My days are filled with graduate school work, managing my kids’ online education, cooking and cleaning to no end, and dealing with national violence and political vitriol that seems never ending. I broke my ankle, my marriage suffered, my friends died, and I dealt with folks shaking their heads at me in disgust at gas stations and grocery stores because I was an Asian wearing a mask. My activities ranged from making dalgona coffees and other TikTok food trends to zoning out watching Friends on repeat and playing Panda Pop on my phone. The last thing I wanted to do was watch an artistic movie that that triggered past memories of growing up as a Korean immigrant family in the South.

But I watched because I was compelled, and maybe I wanted to judge. I wanted to see how this narrative would be similar or different to mine, and if it represented “us” well. A part of me also wondered subconsciously if our story was even worth telling in a movie format, because I had never seen one like it before. I wanted to see what the story would be.

I was born in San Jose, California, but when I was a young child our family moved to the Southeast to get a fresh start. We settled in the suburbs of Atlanta at a time when very few Asians lived in the area. I’ll never forget walking into a McDonald’s a few weeks after our move to find an entire dining room full of white faces staring at us as the room hushed in silent alarm at our foreign Asian family. It’s difficult for me to even think back to that time. Even though the metro Atlanta area now boasts multiple Korean shopping plazas, restaurants, super grocery stores, and a thriving diasporic community, my memories of being a strange child of color lingers in me like a lost nightmare.

I don’t know how they did it. From the unpacking of Korean goods from the luggage to the mom yelling at the top of her lungs so loudly that it sounded like an active guttural cry, my mind went straight back to my childhood. Memories flooded my entire body as I felt the shame of being told to find my own stick in the woods for my parents to punish me with. Of walking into a place with only white people who either stared at me like a fascinating creature or looked confused as to how out of place I was. The way my mom looked at my dad in such resentment that only grew stronger as a result of moving to the middle of nowhere in the South with nothing more than a dream. And the white kids asking me why my face was so flat, but feeling like I had no other option but to befriend them because there was no one else. This was my story, an American story, a Korean American story, and a Korean American Southern story. I bawled as I looked at my life on the movie screen. Afterwards I felt exhausted but richly nourished by this treasure that reminded me of who I was and where I really came from.

So, on that Monday morning when Minari racked up six nominations, I rejoiced. I rejoiced that this gift that had landed in such a beautiful, painful, and memorial way at a time when we were tempted to numb the real pain going on in life. I celebrated that this story was nuanced, told with much care and precision, with subliminal messages and subtexts that didn’t need footnotes.  We could go back in time to see how these stories were part of our identities, and how we could re-connect to them without explaining things to others.

The very next day, on a Tuesday evening, our celebratory faces fell into shock and grieving as we learned about the eight people massacred in Atlanta, four of whom were Korean women. The celebration of an artistic unfolding of our stories through Minari turned into shock and horror over the overexposure of our stories. All the sudden, we were being asked to tell everyone about ourselves in a time where we hadn’t had the opportunities to do so before, and during a time of increased deaths of other BIPOC and still others from COVID-19. We were asked to educate, to soothe, to organize, to explain, to narrate. Cathy Park Hong’s amazing book Minor Feelings hit the New York Times Bestseller list that very week despite being released a year ago. Many of us were interviewed by news outlets and asked to lead gatherings and marches to lament and grieve. Hashtags were displayed in slick graphics and resource lists were thrown together with a plethora of links that had never been clicked on before. Planning our own laments and resources for the sake of others seemed like an exhausting and laborious task. We were asked to make the subtexts plain and known through facts, figures, money, and actions. And I was really bothered and disturbed that I kept getting opportunities to labor in the midst of the murdered women.

Why does it take death to realize that something is important? Why is death necessary for someone to matter? I have been thinking through the ethics of creating art in the wake of death. Our artistic practices must honor the victims in Atlanta as real people for real healing of AAPI communities to start. We must analyze our own racialized histories and the longstanding systemic injustices at work in the world, independent of violence and death, so that our sudden hypervisibility doesn’t scar us further.

My initial resistance to watch Minari was to avoid deep-seated memories of my childhood in the South. I want the freedom to unpack my story little by little every day with my community, rather than have it be painfully thrust open by the massacre in Atlanta. I want the opportunity to educate, organize, and narrate Asian American stories when it’s not the aftermath of the death of Asian women. In a world where the news cycle is guided by violence and urgent reactions to that violence, I want to opt into artistic disciplines that are not limited to reactive measures but offer thoughtful responses to what it means to be human, to be Asian, in the United States. This invitation into a deeply human artistic endeavor is just what Minari offers to us.

Minari, through its brilliant storytelling and cinematography, paid attention to the nuances of a Korean immigrant story in the South. I caught glimpses of hope mixed in with struggles and painful memories. By accepting the invitation, step by step, of exploring my story in watching this movie, reading novels like Pachinko, understanding my faith and the Jesus story through the Korean psychocultural concepts of jeong (정,情) and han (한, 恨), and creating space with others to talk about our experiences and identities, I can show care of our collective communities through art and storytelling without victimhood or death. These small everyday steps do not escape addressing the pain of anti-Asian hate crimes when they happen, but the action of taking the steps do not depend on them.

Minari is available in theaters, A24 Screening Room and On Demand.

 Angie Hong is a worship leader, writer, and speaker. She is currently completing her Masters of Divinity from Duke University and lives in Durham, NC with her spouse and two children. You can follow her across all platforms as @angiekayhong

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