First-Gen Immigrant Filmmakers Are Redefining the American Family Onscreen

Westport, Conn. is the 19th richest community in America. It’s where some of my middle school and junior high classmates lived and it’s where my Jamaican grandma cleaned homes for years. I attended countless birthday parties and sleepovers in the same neighborhood where I would accompany my mom’s mom on the job when mine was away at her own. I preoccupied myself with books and schoolwork as she scrubbed, sponged, mopped, and polished interiors that dwarfed our six-person family’s three-bedroom apartment in Bridgeport. All of this was a slice of my so-called American life, my normal.

These memories resurfaced as I watched seven-year-old David (Alan Kim) and his sister Anne (Noel Kate Cho), fictional siblings in the film Minari, settle into a nondescript factory room with their books as their Korean parents distinguished the sex of day-old chickens for a modest income a few rooms away. And then again, as I watched Angolan expat Walter (The Chi’s Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine) attempt to reconnect with his estranged daughter Sylvia (Jayme Lawson) in the same yellow cab that, after 17 years, earned him enough to help her and her mother immigrate to his Brooklyn home in Farewell Amor. Both films revive the canon of American family drama that prioritizes nuanced, non-white immigrant narratives and redefines the American dream.

Minari has been making headlines since it won the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, and appears to be a frontunner at this year’s Oscar ceremony following seven nominations including Best Picture. Motivated to provide a legacy for his young daughter, filmmaker Lee Isaac Chung mined his childhood experiences coming of age in the 1980s as a first-generation Korean-American raised on a small farm in Lincoln, Arkansas. He recalled listing ‘80 visual memories—the family facing a tornado warning only a week into their arrival; his mother laying down calendar paper in a clothing drawer; shaking his head, not his toothbrush, to clean his teeth—to inform his powerful, deeply personal semi-autobiographical feature.

To animate his recollections, the director-writer does the difficult yet necessary work of fleshing out each Yi family member: There’s David, the mischievous young boy adjusting to his new surroundings and tumultuous family dynamics; Anne, the slightly older responsible sister whose co-parenting tendencies camouflage her justified anxieties; David (The Walking Dead and Burning’s Steven Yeun), the entrepreneurial patriarch hellbent on growing a small, commercially-viable Korean produce farm, even if it means shattering his family unit in the process; Monica (Yeri Han), his devout wife, whose sacrifices for her husband deepen their rift and isolate her from the religious and social communities that shape her identity; and Soonja (Youn Yuh-jung), Monica’s mother, who moves from Korea into the family’s rundown trailer, matching David’s mischief and inspiring her grandson to live life to the fullest. Powering these fully developed characters are insightful references to Monica and David’s marriage story—“You two used to love this song,” Soonja says. “They come to America and forget everything”—an unexpected plot point that infuses delicate notes of love, joy, and heartache. These all-or-nothing stakes illustrate the self-destructive nature of blind ambition and expectations.

Alan Kim and Steven Yeun in Minari.

Melissa Lukenbaugh

“Even if I fail, I have to finish what I started.” David ejects during a pivotal scene where he stands to lose the same family for which he’s killing himself to provide a “better life.” The film’s final act culminates in an explosive event that shows just how far he’s willing to go.

The lush, bucolic Arkansas also serves as a character, providing a classic Americana backdrop and agricultural storyline that culminates in quiet defiance of commonplace portrayals of inner-city Chinatowns, British neighborhoods, and international Asian countries. Yes, Asian immigrants were based in those areas, but what about elsewhere? In fact, it’s beside a creek buried deep inside the Yi’s pastoral land where Soonja spreads her minari seeds and educates David about the resilient Korean herb’s ability to grow almost anywhere.

“It’s only found in the U.S. if people plant it here [with seeds they brought from] Korea,” Chung said at Sundance last year. “It was the only thing that thrived.”

It’s not that Minari is one of the first non-adapted films to focus on immigrants of color whose experiences interrogate an American dream founded on working hard to provide a better life for one’s self and family. We’ve seen this narrative pioneered before, with original stories like Patricia Cardoso’s 2002 Real Women Have Curves, Ramin Bahrani’s 2005 Man Push Cart, Andrew Dosunmu’s 2013 Mother of George, and Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon’s 2017 The Big Sick. But Minari is one of the only (if not, the only) original American screenplays to spotlight an Asian-American immigrant family, period.

If an irreversible rupture looms above the Yi family in Minari, then Ekwa Msangi’s feature directorial film debut, Farewell Amor, begins in the shattered aftermath. Her story takes place during the late 2000s in New York City, specifically Brooklyn, home to one of the nation’s largest, most multicultural immigrant populations. We first meet husband and wife Walter and Esther (Zainab Jah) and their adolescent daughter Sylvia at the arrivals welcome section in John F. Kennedy airport. For almost 20 years, Walter has been separated from both his homeland of Angola and his exiled wife and daughter. This might as well be their first time meeting, because, as the film quickly proves, time bears painful change.

For inspiration, Msangi looked to a close relative who, to date, hasn’t seen his family since the mid-‘90s due to visa and immigration issues, but has kept in touch through the decades and sent enough savings to build a house and send his son through college. “Despite their hopefulness to one day reunite, I often wonder what a reunion would actually look like after so many years apart,” Msangi said in her director’s statement. “How would they relate to one another? What scars would the distance have left on them? And what of their child who was five months old when his father initially left?” The Tanzanian-American filmmaker also spotted an opportunity to showcase Black love, longing, and relationships in an African immigrant context, a rarity in film that she attributes to “religious reasons, among many others.”

farewell amor

Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine and Jayme Lawson in Farewell Amor.

IFC Films

Msangi doesn’t vilify or condemn the husband and father for his relationship with Linda, even as knowledge of it threatens to destroy the brittle relations inside his first family. Nor does she ridicule or pigeonhole Esther as solely an unworldly, naive zealot or a stereotypically overbearing African immigrant mother. Instead, Msangi’s sensitive lens merely shows each character’s past, present, and ideal future selves clashing in real and devastating ways.

The family’s saving grace comes with Sylvia’s perspective, one in which she harbors an inextinguishable love for dance, a passion she unknowingly inherited from her parents, who shelter their own desires for the sake of coping with post-war trauma and making it in America. This theme of dancing and intergenerational muscle memory ultimately becomes a conduit for open, honest communication and radical forgiveness, both for family and for self, pointing to a hopeful reconciliation and restoration of a once fragmented family.

“This place is really hard for Black people, especially foreigners,” Walter tells his daughter after walking in on her practicing a routine in her bedroom. Dancing, he reveals, “is the one place where I can actually be myself. Show myself.”

While the films vastly differ in time period, location, and racial identity, both Minari and Farewell Amor propose the revolutionary act of not assimilating, but quilting together personal experiences defined by love, joy, heartache, trauma, and distinctive cultures shaped by home, both new and old, familiar and foreign. They counter the steely, back-breaking myth of the American dream with the soft, flexible salve of self-determination, self-acceptance, and self-care, whether in the form of working the land, competing in a dance competition, or reconstructing a relationship. Complex immigrant narratives, particularly those told by and portraying immigrants of color in unexpected locations and genres, have the power to normalize and validate the experiences of a rapidly growing American demographic and redefine a more inclusive, compassionate dream for all.

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