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First-generation immigrant filmmakers redefine the American family onscreen


Westport, Connecticut, is America’s 19th richest community. This is where some of my college and junior high school mates lived and it was where my Jamaican grandmother cleaned homes for years. I have attended countless birthday parties and sleepovers in the same neighborhood where I would accompany my mom’s mom to work when mine was at her house. I got preoccupied with books and homework as she cleaned, mopped, mopped and polished the interiors that eclipsed our family of six’s three-bedroom apartment in Bridgeport. It was all a slice of my so-called American life, my normal life.

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 in an indescribable factory room with their books as their Korean parents distinguish the sex of day-old chickens for a modest income to just a few coins. And again, as I watched Angolan expatriate Walter (ChiNtare Guma Mbaho Mwine) tries to reconnect with his estranged daughter Sylvia (Jayme Lawson) in the same yellow cab that, after 17 years, got him enough to help him and his mother immigrate to his Brooklyn home in Brooklyn Goodbye Amor. Both films revive the canon of American family drama that prioritizes narratives of nuanced, non-white immigrants and redefines the American dream.

Minari has been in the headlines since winning the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, and appears to be one of the pioneers of this year’s Oscars after seven nominations, including that for best film. Motivated to provide a legacy for his young daughter, filmmaker Lee Isaac Chung harnessed his childhood experiences by coming of age in the 1980s as a first-generation Korean-American raised on a small farm in Lincoln, Arkansas. He recalls listing 80 visual memories – the family facing a tornado warning only a week after their arrival; her mother putting calendar paper in a clothes drawer; shaking his head, not his toothbrush, to clean his teeth – to inform his powerful and deeply personal semi-autobiographical characteristic.

To liven up his memories, the director-writer does the difficult but necessary work to flesh out each member of the Yi family: there is David, the mischievous young boy who adapts to his new environment and to the tumultuous family dynamics; Anne, the slightly older responsible sister whose tendencies towards co-parenting camouflage her justified anxieties; David (The walking dead and Burning‘s Steven Yeun), the entrepreneurial patriarch bent on cultivating a commercially viable small Korean farm, even if it means breaking up his family unit in the process; Monica (Yeri Han), his pious wife, whose sacrifices for her husband deepen their breakup and isolate him from the religious and social communities that shape his identity; and Soonja (Youn Yuh-jung), the mother of Monica, who moves from Korea in the ramshackle family trailer, matching David’s misdeeds and inspiring her grandson to live his life to the fullest. Fueling these fully developed characters are insightful references to Monica and David’s marriage story – “You two loved that song,” Soonja says. “They come to America and forget everything” – an unexpected plot that infuses delicate notes of love, joy and sorrow. These all-or-nothing issues illustrate the self-defeating nature of blind ambition and expectations.

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Alan Kim and Steven Yeun in Minari.

Melissa Lukenbaugh

“Even if I fail, I have to finish what I started.” David ejects himself during a pivotal scene where he risks losing the same family for which he commits suicide to offer a “better life”. The final act of the film ends with an explosive event that shows just how far he’s ready to go.

Lush, bucolic Arkansas also serves as the character, providing a classic Americana backdrop and farming storyline that culminates in a silent disregard of the mundane depictions of downtown Chinatown, British quarters, and Asian countries. international. Yes, Asian immigrants were based in these regions, but what about elsewhere? In fact, it’s next to a cove buried deep in the pastoral land of Yi where Soonja spreads his minari seeds and educates David about the ability of the tough Korean weed to grow almost anywhere.

“It is only found in the United States if people plant it here. [with seeds they brought from] Korea, ”Chung told Sundance last year. “It was the only thing that thrived.”

It’s not that Minari is one of the first unsuitable films to focus on immigrants of color whose experiences question an American dream founded on hard work to provide a better life for yourself and your family. We’ve seen this groundbreaking tale before, with original stories like Patricia Cardoso in 2002 Real women have curves, Ramin Bahrani’s 2005 Man push trolley, Andrew Dosunmu’s 2013 George’s mother, and Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon’s 2017 The big sick. But Minari is one of the few (if not, the only) Original American storylines to highlight an Asian-American immigrant family, period.

If an irreversible rupture hovers over the Yi family Minari, then Ekwa Msangi’s first feature film, Goodbye Amor, begins in the broken suite. Its story takes place in the late 2000s in New York City, particularly Brooklyn, which is home to one of the country’s largest and most multicultural immigrant populations. We first meet husband and wife Walter and Esther (Zainab Jah) and their teenage daughter Sylvia at the arrivals reception section of John F. Kennedy Airport. For almost 20 years, Walter was separated from both his Angolan homeland and his exiled wife and daughter. It might as well be their first meeting, because, as the movie quickly proves, the weather is undergoing a painful change.

For inspiration, Msangi turned to a close relative who, to date, has not seen his family since the mid-1990s due to visa and immigration issues, but has kept in touch at the over decades and sent enough savings to build a house and send his son to college. “Despite their hope that they will someday meet again, I often wonder what a reunion would look like after so many years apart,” Ms. Msangi said in her manager’s statement. “How would they relate to each other? What scars would the distance have left them? And what about their child who was five months old when his father first left? The Tanzanian-American filmmaker also spotted an opportunity to present the love, desire and relationships of blacks in the context of African immigration, a rarity in the film which she attributes to “religious reasons, among others”.

goodbye love

Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine and Jayme Lawson in Goodbye Amor.

IFC Films

Msangi will not defame or condemn the husband and father for his relationship with Linda, even if his acquaintance threatens to destroy the fragile relationships within her first family. She also doesn’t ridicule or classify Esther solely as a naive and supernatural fanatic or as an authoritarian and stereotypical African immigrant mother. Instead, Msangi’s sensitive lens simply shows each character’s past, present, and ideal future clashing in real and devastating ways.

The family’s saving grace comes with Sylvia’s perspective, in which she nurtures an unquenchable love for dance, a passion she unwittingly inherited from her parents, who harbor their own desires in an effort to cope with the post-war trauma and doing it in America. This theme of dance and intergenerational muscle memory ultimately becomes a channel for open and honest communication and radical forgiveness, both for family and for oneself, indicating a hopeful reconciliation and restoration of a once fragmented family.

“This place is really difficult for black people, especially foreigners,” Walter tells his daughter after accompanying her through a routine in her bedroom. Dancing, he reveals, “is the only place where I can be myself. Show me. “

Although the films differ wildly in terms of time period, location, and racial identity, the two Minari and Goodbye Amor proposing the revolutionary act of not assimilating, but of cushioning together personal experiences defined by love, joy, sorrow, trauma and the distinctive cultures shaped by the house, both new and old, familiar and alien . They counter the sharp, back-breaking myth of the American Dream with the soft, flexible balm of self-determination, self-acceptance and self-care, whether in the form of working the land, competing in a contest. dance or reconstruction. a relationship. Complex immigrant narratives, especially those told by immigrants of color and portraying them in unexpected places and genres, have the power to normalize and validate the experiences of a rapidly growing American demographic and to redefine a more inclusive and compassionate dream for all.

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