Changing immigration trends colour 'Minari' reception in South Korea

Hyonhee Shin
·3 min read
FILE PHOTO: A general view of apartment complexes in Seoul

By Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) - The heartfelt Korean immigrant tale in "Minari" resonated with many Asian Americans, but for some in South Korea the film presented a far too dated view of immigration to the United States.

"Minari", directed by a Korean-American and produced in the United States, was nominated for six Academy Awards, including best picture, best director and best supporting actress for Youn Yuh-jung, a historic first for a Korean actor.

Released in the midst of the pandemic, the film's Korean elements and its Oscar nominations helped make it a commercial success in South Korea, where the film brought in $7 million of its total $11 million global box office receipts, compared with $2 million from showings in the United States, according to IMDb.

In "Minari," the tale of a hard-luck immigrant farming family in rural Arkansas in the 1980s highlighted the heyday of immigration from South Korea to the United States. Today, however, it's a tale that is increasingly foreign to many South Koreans, especially younger people.

"It is true that people are less interested in 'Minari' because of its topic, as these days it's mostly rich people who immigrate to America," said a 35-year-old teacher who only gave her surname, Jeong.

About 350,000 Koreans were estimated to have immigrated to the United States in the 1980s after the liberalisation of overseas travel and studies. The annual tally peaked in 1986, at 30,500, but it slowed to 8,000 a year in the 2000s, and then to about 4,000 after Washington tightened border controls after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, according to South Korea's foreign ministry.

Most new Korean immigrants to the United States are there for jobs or satisfy an investment requirement of nearly a million dollars, the ministry data showed.

Racial tensions, highlighted by a recent Atlanta shooting in which four Koreans were killed, and the high numbers of coronavirus cases and deaths in the United States, have also cast a darker shadow on the idea of living there, said Park Soo-hui, 69, who said she has relatives in the United States.

Park said the film reminded of the hardships her relatives suffered after moving to the United States in the early 1990s. But her teenage granddaughter had a different thought.

"They left hoping for a better life as they were not doing well here, and they went through a lot in their early days, including racial discrimination and family disputes," she said. "But as we watched the film together, my granddaughter was just envious, saying not everyone could go there."

"Minari" is the second film in as many years to make history at the Academy Awards with its Korean connections, after the South Korea-produced "Parasite" took the 2020 awards by storm, snagging six nominations and four wins, including "Best Picture."

It attracted more than 10 million viewers in South Korean theatres within two months of its release in 2019, becoming one of the most watched films in Korean history.

"Minari," which opened in South Korea on March 3, has drawn about 925,000 viewers as of Wednesday, Korean Film Council (KOFIC) data showed.

More than "Minari" itself, South Koreans expressed more interest in the nomination for Youn, who plays a spunky grandmother who travels to the United States to take care of her grandchildren.

Jung Duk-hyun, a culture critic, said the domestic audience could be more focused on Youn because she not only earned the Oscar nomination but also embodied an "independent, mischievous and cool grandma," an image of women increasingly pursued in Korean society.

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Editing by Josh Smith and Gerry Doyle)