“I LIKE the idea of grace happening in this world and not through the holy.” So says Lee Isaac Chung of his film Minari (Cert. 12), readily admitting the spiritual influence of directors such as Terrence Mallick (Days of Heaven).
A Korean-American couple, Jacob and Monica Yi (Steven Yeun and Yeri Han), bring their children, Anne and David (Noel Kate Cho and Alan S. Kim), to live in Arkansas on land bought with a bank loan. The story is set in the 1980s, economically desperate times for farmers. Jacob sees their plot as the Garden of Eden. His city-girl wife doesn’t conceal her disappointment at being dumped in hillbilly country and living in a trailer.
Things get worse. The well runs dry. Crops wither. The seven-year-old David has a weak heart. Monica feels socially isolated. The local church provides some respite, but the soul-destroying work of sexing chicks at a hatchery only adds to their misery. Jacob reminds Monica that when they married they promised to escape Korea’s poor conditions by going to America to save one another. She challenges this. Are you saying, she asks, we can’t save each other, but money can? The Yis badly need some of that blessed assurance that they sing about on Sundays.
It comes in the form of his Pentecostal neighbour, Paul (played by Will Patton, himself the son of a Lutheran minister). He helps Jacob tend the land, praying over it and pointing to sunshine breaking through clouds as a signal of God’s beneficence. The arrival of Monica’s foul-mouthed and sly mother Soonja (the veteran actress Yuh-jung Youn in the performance that won her an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress) also brings much-needed relief to a tense situation.
David tells Grandma that he wards off premature death by seeing heaven in his sleep. She will have none of this fatalism, and takes him down to a stream to scatter minari seeds, a Korean delicacy. Its burgeoning growth is, in effect, manna from heaven for the besieged family if they did but know it.
Yuh-jung Youn in Minari
Minari examines that broken bond with Eden. Though we live now by the sweat of our brows, it doesn’t exclude the assurance of redemption. Paul, Sunday by Sunday, heaves a solid cross along the road, reminding himself and others that the divine cost of loving is what makes reclaiming paradise a possibility. At a personal level, Jacob and Monica have yet to discover ways of living through rough periods when things aren’t, in Soonja’s words, as “lovey-dovey” as the time when they fell in love.
This is a film full of parabolic allusions for those who have the eyes to see: such as a large picture of the Good Shepherd adorning the Yi family home. The director, whose own background is Christian, has acknowledged that he’s asking how we find new ways of being church on the land or in communities where everyone is a welcome member of the Lord’s flock. Likewise, the minari that Soonja has planted serves as a reminder of Jesus’s story of the mustard seed. Let it be and, like the Kingdom of God, it will prosper. All that is required is some tender, loving care.
Minari is released on various digital platforms and selected virtual cinemas.