‘The Field Is Open’: Ocean Vuong on Minari’s Lasting Cultural Legacy

A photo hangs on the wall above my desk, held in place by a piece of scotch tape. Well, not exactly a photo, but a postcard that A24 sent me in advance of the release of Minari. It features Jacob Yi (played by Steven Yeun) stands under the scorching Arkansas sun, hands on hips, forehead damp with sweat, pink buttoned work shirt—a touch of elegance meant to hide his rough handiwork as a farmer—flares brightly against the green summer landscape behind him. I recognize him immediately. His gaze is focused on a point beyond the frame – is it the fields he is to produce, the tractor, the trailer the family is to live in, Arkansas itself, America, the future? Whatever it is, his look becomes, for me, the quintessential Asian-American maker. His face, which flinches more than smiles, twists into a mask of confusion as if to say: What do I do with all of this?

I immediately felt that this snapshot captured the precise and indelible spirit of creation that so many of us and those before us have encountered in this country. How many times have I stood over my pages scattered across the studio floor, hands on hips, cigarette out of my mouth, and looked down at my work with the same perplexed gaze as Jacob and asked: What do I do with all of this? In fact, I am sure, even as I sit down to write, what language’s recruitment is to do more than define, but expand, complicate, enhance, that the soul within me (if we put it that way can name) stands straight like the man on this postcard who looks so massive and unsustainable thing beyond the frame and assessed the seemingly impossible task that lay before him.

The most striking thing about this photo, however, is the life around it. The rye and quack grass, the field weeds, so overgrown that they threaten to suffocate the figure, but also seem to lift him up, along with his children, who happily run after him, unaware of their parents’ Sisyphean life. The mother, Monica, played along Han Ye-ri, stands beside the car, that metallic medium of American hope and ambition, hands lowered to the side with a foreboding, stern gaze, as if watching something burn in front of her. Maybe it’s the barn reminiscent of Tarkovsky’s Mirror, later, the film’s crescendo flares up, a metaphor for the transience of the American dream.

The trees behind the figures are so thick in summer that they seem to sway in the background, as if a breeze were swinging their tops to touch the earth. Why does it matter, we might ask, that a Korean-American man is standing in an American field with his family? Because the American imagination, that is, the semiotic codes that dictate who should participate in the “natural world,” has often excluded people of color. As a boy, if someone mentioned the word walkeror Farmer, researcher, archaeologist, Hunter, park rangers, conservationists, I was taught – or persuaded to think of whiteness, whiteness with its dominion – control? – to connect about nature itself. I didn’t know then what I’m doing now: that this embellishment of nature was both subtly and overtly staged to reposition American pastoral care as something other than what it was: the graveyard of the expansionist project, one that Native American genocide saw a means to American accomplishment. And to consider that Arkansas, where this film is set, was the ninth state to join the Confederacy at the start of the Civil War. Although much revisionist history has been written to portray the North mostly as morally bound abolitionists, the liberation of enslaved peoples was seen as a necessary means of curbing the perceived unfair economic advantage of slaveholders in Western expansion. It was assumed that if new states were to become slave states, as the Missouri Compromise anticipated, the landowning peasants in the North would never compete with the slaveholders’ free labor power. And so the war began to unravel the aporia of American wealth – and the rest, as they say, is history.

Also history are the Chinese-American farmers who, 13 years before the Civil War, cultivated the Sacramento River Valley from barren swamplands into a thriving agricultural hotbed that fed millions in California and the burgeoning West. Until the turn of the 20thth In the 19th century, over 75% of California agriculture was Chinese. There followed a mid-century heyday of Japanese farmers, then Hmong and Vietnamese farmers who came to the Midwest after being displaced by the Vietnam War. Like their contemporary Chinese railroaders, however, the legacy of the Asian peasants in America has all but vanished from the public imagination. How could it be that yellow men with ponytails built the iron veins of “the greatest nation on earth”? How could it be that the means of economic and military success (the Civil War was won in part by the Union’s mass control of supply routes via its railroad system) were literally carried on the backs of these “Changs”? Because to admit that behind the mask of American growth lies a yellow face is to shatter the myth of the white state of emergency, and with it the bucolic dream of the red barn adorned with a cartoonish sunbeam glowing across lime green furrows, propagate the logos pasted across the infinity Milk cartons, eggs, butter, whole chickens the companies market, whose products are often made in steel warehouses under LED lights, not a blade of grass in sight.

Observe what becomes clear minary, is that American history is the history of the country, which, as the saying goes, is the history of race and work. In this way, the presence of a Korean family in a field, a field where they will work to feed the country even if the country wants them gone, is a quietly radical gesture – not because it’s new, but because it evokes, and thereby recaptures, the Asian body standing in a rural field as a natural, even communal, force. If agriculture is a species-wide innovation credited in part with the thriving of civilization itself, why has the American imagination been so robbed of the Asian figure who feeds itself, and the country in turn?

Until recently, Asian farm workers were portrayed in the Western media as a mass of foreign peasants, often through the sign of war: farmers in straw hats scrambling across paddy fields lit by tracer shots (soon-to-be corpses), or tapping rubber trees, climbing rickety ones Logs, ape-like, for coconuts, and all of that occurs “over there” among the “uncivilized primitives.” So the natural world was used to anchor Asianness as a backward and uncultured manifestation of ignorance: agriculture instead of politeness and innovation.

https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2022/09/the-field-is-open-ocean-vuong-on-minaris-awards-insider ‘The Field Is Open’: Ocean Vuong on Minari’s Lasting Cultural Legacy


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