The Double Meaning of the American Dream

Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari is filled with symbols of abundance that are also residues of prosaic commercialism.

The Yi family stands in a field in front of their car
David Bornfriend / A24

Having moved from the teeming cityscape of Taipei to the rural American South in the 1970s as a preteen, I know something of the shock, at once awe-inspiring and estranging, of that first sight of the great American landscape—just sheer land—that seems to stretch on forever. Watching Minari, the new semi-autobiographical film from Lee Isaac Chung about a Korean-American family newly arrived in the heartlands of 1980s Arkansas, I remember again that uncanny sense of feeling at once free and lost.

From the get-go, there are hints of how tenuous this new beginning is for the Yi family. The father, Jacob Yi (played by Steven Yeun), has moved his entire family, in spite of his wife’s doubts and objections, across the country from California in order to chase his hopes of building a family farm. (“Five acres is a hobby … but my dream is 50 acres.”) But fragility touches every early frame—from the awaiting trailer house parked on cinder blocks to the wildflowers and insects surviving in the cleared acreage, the initially puzzling parental insistence that their lively little boy “should not run” despite the wide open spaces, and the young wife’s softly spoken first words, “This is not what you promised.”

In all this, Chung’s visual vocabulary stands out as the master narrative engine: It retells the story of the American dream, not as a progressive triumph or debilitating failure, but as a peculiar and cyclical mix of allure and disappointment, absorption and distraction, allegiances and betrayals. Jacob is a complex character. He’s bolstered by an ambition that he privileges more than anything in the world (perhaps even more than the family that the dream is meant to benefit in the first place), but he’s also keen to hold onto his roots. Through the everyday objects in the film and the small moments in the Yis’ daily lives, we start to discern this double melody at the heart of Jacob’s aspirations.

The small television in the Yis’ home, for example, is the trigger for an exquisite scene of mundane domestic heartbreak, and a subtle example of the interplay between American mass consumption and diasporic longing. The grandmother (Yuh-Jung Youn) at one point watches a video of a Korean vocalist singing some love ballad. She tells the kids that it used to be their parents’ favorite: “Whenever someone made your mom and dad sing this song, they’d get all lovey-dovey.” A distant look comes into the eyes of the young wife, Monica (Yeri Han). “Did we,” she murmurs, before going back to her silent dinner next to her husband. When the grandmother retorts, “They come to America and forget everything,” her words don’t merely mourn the passing of young love but remind us that the American dream often overtakes other goals and pledges.

At the end of this intimate vignette, Chung’s camera zooms in on the small television screen only to jump-cut to a series of still shots: the exterior of the Yi’s trailer house gleaming greenish in the dark field; a shot of the edge of town with nothing in the frame but a partial building; then “downtown,” a deserted crosswalk lit by anemic street lights, lined with the inhuman faces of storefronts. All the while, the grainy soundtrack of the soulful Korean chanteuse fills the night air. This is Chung’s Americana, his Edward Hopper.

Symbols of Americana in this film fluctuate between being luminous signs of abundance and prosaic residues of cheap commercialism—luxury that doubles as waste. Early in the movie, the older daughter, Anne (Noel Cho), patiently tells her grandmother that Mountain Dew is “water from the mountains” and is “good for your health.” Later, her younger brother, David (Alan Kim), is acting out against his grandmother (“Grandma smells like Korea!”) and replaces her Mountain Dew with his pee. The act is at once hostile and childish, but the substitution is doubly ironic—not only because Mountain Dew–as–urine is an old joke, but also because Mountain Dew in this film is already a false symbol of American abundance and nourishment. (As a child, I heard family lore about a super-expensive, hard-to-get, “very special American wine,” favored by my cosmopolitan, Taiwanese grandmother; it came in a beautiful, sculpted crystal bottle that she would save for display. Years later, in the U.S., I discovered that it was, in fact, Manischewitz, available from the local A&P.)

So, the highly artificial Mountain Dew is an elixir and urine; it’s a treat and a betrayal. David’s aggression against his grandmother—which is to say, against an Old Country that he doesn’t know but that shadows all his social interactions—echoes the alienation that he himself experiences in the world. The gulf between them is clearly cultural and generational. But, Chung insists, it’s also personal and, like a predilection for soda, idiosyncratic: the stuff of families, part of the normal violence of intimacy, where you get to be unkind to someone precisely because you know you can.

The Yi family examines a piece of paper
Melissa Lukenbaugh / A24

There are other objects. The dreamed-of American ranch home on the pasture is, at the same time, a trailer house in the middle of nowhere—both unmovable (the irony about “mobile” homes) and precarious (as the later tornado watch will underscore). Eden, what Jacob actually calls the land, is also already the site of exile; the previous owner, we learn, couldn’t make a go of it and killed himself. The cowboy hats and boots that David favors are the material vestiges of a still-active story of the American frontier that holds his father (and indeed his whole family) in its grips and, at the same time, cheap toys.

Flickering between transcendence and detumescence, the objects of the American dream in this movie are misleading—not because they’re lies, per se, but because they hold out a continual assurance, as addictive as the high fructose corn syrup in Mountain Dew or the cigarette that Jacob draws on like a Marlboro Man. The American dream is a hook, like a pyramid scheme requiring a heavy initial investment (such as, say, 50 acres in the Ozarks) with the endless but unsustainable promise of exponential growth. In this scheme, abundance is a moving target, not a destination. What Jacob loses and what he strives to acquire are mutually supporting narratives. They drive and cancel each other in an ever-growing yet never balanced ledger.

Within and alongside the labors of this chase, we see the work and stretch and pull of kinship. For the immigrant, the ambivalent economy of private and familial feelings is entangled with the ambivalent economy of the American dream. When Monica tells her husband “I can’t do it anymore” near the film’s climax, does she want to stop struggling for the farm’s success, or stop prioritizing his goals over hers? Is it about the land or their marriage? Is there a difference? Their intimate relationship is framed by the wider vision of the American dream. It’s this constant navigation—between being a private individual and also a public body that is foreign to yourself—that Minari captures and leaves unresolved.

In the last year I found myself facing a new foreign territory: this time, a cancer diagnosis. Friends, in kind support, tell me how courageous I am in my fight. But I know I am not courageous at all. I feel fragile, broken, a flotsam in the sea of medical protocols and procedures. Cancer is a door that I have to walk through, a step at a time. Sometimes, when you find yourself and your loved ones in a wholly strange landscape, you move forward even if you are making no progress, and that movement is, in itself, not nothing.

Minari has already received much praise for its celebration of the immigrant—and human—spirit. But I want to bring attention to the film’s profound melancholia: its willingness to dwell within the utopia (the “no place”) of starting over. Freud defined melancholia as a state of stuckness, about living with a loss so impoverishing that it paradoxically enriches you. Being melancholic, then, isn’t just about having the blues; it’s also about holding on to a lack that feeds you. Chung’s film, notably, does not end on a resolution, or even with a promise of the Yis’ success. Instead, it concludes with a modest act of re-starting. In the land of self-made beginnings, Minari shows us that the American dream isn’t teleological but circular: a series of continual arrivals. The Golden Globes’ decision to place the film, an American pastoral, in its foreign-language category only underscores the continual unbelonging of Asian Americans.

It’s a shame, because this is a very American story. The quiet fathoms of Minari give us a patient and tender view into what it means to be sustained by a dream you can never fully occupy. Beyond American capitalism’s twin poles of “having” or “being had,” Minari reminds us that living—in its most basic and unglamorous strivings—is, too, a form of dear possession.