How two of 2021's biggest movies are rewriting the American Dream

'Minari' and 'First Cow' are not just redefining the future of aspiration and the meaning of success, but also illuminating Asian American history.

by Katie Goh
09 March 2021, 8:45am

Image courtesy of Altitude

What, in 2021, is the American Dream? Or rather, what, in 2021, is left of the American Dream? A national ideology founded on persecution — both the religious persecution of European immigrants and the genocidal persecution of Native Americans — the American Dream is about freedom of movement: to gain, to advance, to build. It’s a national myth that declares that all men (that is: white, non-disabled, cisgendered men) are created equal and that as long as you are willing to work hard, make sacrifices and play by the rules, success is just around the corner. 

By now, this definition of the American Dream has largely been debunked as a disillusion of capitalism built on shaky foundations (who among us hasn’t studied The Great Gatsby?). Instead this original ideology has morphed into a less naive, more insidious form of American exceptionalism, exploitation and excuses. This version of the American Dream is exactly what Donald Trump dangled in front of voters five years ago, and its utter failure is what played out over his presidency. Life did not get better. Progress was not made. The downtrodden were not upheld. Simply put: you can’t make it in a country that actively does not want you to succeed. 

In this strange time when the American Dream is still being used to sell a utopian (or dystopian) version of America, and a past that doesn’t exist, American culture has been reckoning with its, often whitewashed and glorified, history. Two new films Minari and First Cow pull apart this myth of the American Dream by looking to the country’s past: in A24’s Minari, set in the 1980s, the immigrant American Dream is scorched to the ground, while in First Cow, set in the 1820s, the origins of the American Dream are both reclaimed and mocked. 

As well as this thematic connection, another thread runs between the films: they feature and/or are made by East Asian people. Minari, directed by Lee Isaac Chung, is about a Korean-American family, while First Cow features a Chinese businessman (played by Orion Lee) as its co-lead. Another soon-to-be released film, Nomadland, directed by Chloe Zhao, a Chinese filmmaker, also looks at the American Dream; in its case, a contemporary dream of capitalism in which abuse and neglect are normalised in corporate America.  

While these recent films are certainly not the first to dismantle the American Dream in cinema, they are unique in the perspective they bring to these retellings of America’s oldest myth — that is, the Asian-American perspective. It’s one that sits uncomfortably between acceptable roles: both American citizen and foreign immigrant, local and alien. 

First Cow
, also from A24, might not seem like a film with an explicitly Asian-American voice — its director Kelly Reichardt is not Asian-American herself — but it’s a film that takes a hard look at the nation’s past and who contributed to it. Set in early 1800s Oregon, a state that wouldn’t become part of the US for another forty years, First Cow’s cast is a mismatched group of stragglers, opportunity-seekers and, of course, Native Americans whose land these foreigners are occupying. Amongst them is Cookie (John Magaro), a good-natured Bostonian, and King-Lu (Lee), a resourceful Chinese entrepreneur. The two strike up a friendship in their hostile surroundings, first as roommates, then as business partners: Cookie has a talent for baking and King-Lu has a talent for securing his chief ingredient, the rare luxury of milk stolen from a British landlord’s cow. 

First Cow is a subtle story of friendship and supply-and-demand capitalism, set in a time and place that has been mythologised in American history: the Western frontier. While this period is often whitewashed in cinema, focusing on the European settlers and rarely giving space to other non-white immigrants and Native American people beyond caricature, Reichardt’s film portrays a more authentic version of history. 

“Care [by the filmmakers] was put into portraying a Pacific Northwest as a contested space filled with European immigrants, American prospectors and military officers, indigenous people speaking Chinuk Wawa intermingling with Hawaiians,” explains Jason Chang, a professor at the University of Connecticut. “King-Lu was cast in this collection of folks as a representative of the class of Chinese migrant who became important to the work of the frontier. Their skills and diasporic connections filled crucial gaps in the new frontiers across the globe.”

This crucial role that Chinese migrants played in developing America into the country we know today has largely been whitewashed, due to laws like the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. “One of the functions of anti-Chinese politics of the later part of the 19th century was to remove the Chinese from that role as the territory became more coherently integrated with the rest of the US,” explains Professor Chang. First Cow opens with the modern-day discovery of Cookie and King-Lu’s remains. “I thought the opening sequence about the unmarked grave was a strong metaphor for so much of history, those stories that are lost to the archives and we are lucky to find contemporary material evidence,” he adds.

This idea of lost history — who remembers it, who makes it and on whose terms are both of these done — also looms over Minari. Minari tells the story of the Yi family: Korean parents, Jacob (Steven Yeun) and Monica (Han Yi-re), Korean-American children, David (Alan Kim) and Anne (Noel Cho) and Korean grandmother, Soonja (Youn Yuh-jung). Early in the film, the Yis move to rural Arkansas in pursuit of Jacob’s dream: to establish a farm, sell the produce and become a success so that he and Monica can finally quit their jobs as chicken sexers, a laborious factory job, predominantly done by Korean immigrants. Minari’s setup — the dream of profiting from the land — is a quintessentially American one: as old as the period of Cookie and King’s biscuit enterprise, and as modern as the US’s fracking epidemic. But Jacob’s farm isn’t growing indigenous or transplanted European crops; instead he is growing his own slice of Korea. Plump, purple eggplant and leafy greens are nurtured on this patch of American soil, while Soonja plants her own crop, minari, a herb-like plant that dies in its first year before thriving in its second. 

The Yi’s are one fictional case of many real-life Korean families that found their way to America in the latter half of the 20th century. “The Korean economy, rapidly industrialising, was not hospitable for so many Koreans who for many reasons were left behind during the ‘miracle of the Han’ [South Korea’s economic boom following the Korean war],” James Kyung-Jin Lee, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, tells us. “The 1980s was a decade of mass migration from South Korea to the US.” While Asian-American stories in film are often set in cities, within diasporic communities, Chung locates Minari in white, rural America, giving Jacob the most traditional of American trades: agriculture. 

Critics have been quick to emphasise that Minari is an American film first, identity politics film second, but these two elements are not mutually exclusive. It is through the specificity of Minari’s Korean-American immigrant gaze that the American Dream is dismantled, as Jacob struggles with the realities of failure. Faith in gaining capital is replaced by faith in family and community — a rearranging of priorities that almost destroys, but ultimately saves, the Yis.  

When Minari won Best Foreign Film at the 2021 Golden Globes, many remarked on the ridiculousness of the category. Here was a film made in America by an American director and American producers being put into a foreign film category, when other films filmed in non-English languages, like Inglorious Bastards, have not received similar treatment. It seems that ‘foreign’ to the Golden Globes, and the film industry at large, is less about language and more about how certain populations in America are perceived. We saw the same thing last year, when Lulu Wang’s The Farewell was similarly othered and put into foreign film categories. 

Over the last year, as violence against Asian communities in America, the UK and other predominantly white countries has skyrocketed due to COVID-related racism, the relationship Asian communities have to these spaces is being thrown into question. It’s fitting that these period films, which demand a re-assementment of America’s whitewashed history and the role Asian immigrants have played in the shaping of a nation, are being released at this time. “Asian-American history is practically non-existent [in American curriculums],” Professor Lee tells me. “Students at my university still register shock and then dismay and fury that this historical and cultural knowledge is largely unavailable to them until college.”

Is it any wonder that violence, sparked by racist rhetoric around COVID, against Asian-Americans has increased when America can’t even see a film with an Asian-American cast as anything but foreign? Minari and First Cow are soul-searching films in that they search for the places their Asian immigrant characters can inhabit in America’s soul. They also do something long-overdue in cinema: assert Asian-American history — with all its pain, joy and nuances — onto the screen as, fundamentally, America’s history. 

Minari is released by Altitude on 19 March. First Cow is released by Mubi on 28 May.

American dream