Vilonia, AR. Lee Isaac Chung’s semi-biographical immigrant drama Minari won Best Foreign Language film this week at the Golden Globes. In his acceptance speech, Chung stated the film is about “a family trying to learn how to speak a language of its own. It goes deeper than any American language and any foreign language. It’s a language of the heart, and I’m trying to learn it myself and to pass it on.” The film is named for a Korean herb that he claims exhibits “poetic” qualities. It is a favorite for making kimchi, fish soups, and daily tonics, due to its high content of vitamins and minerals. Rich and poor alike enjoy it because of the ease at which it grows without human intervention. It is a plant of special grace, as Chung explains in an interview at Sundance:
The interesting thing about it is that it’s a plant that will grow very strongly in its second season after it has died and come back. So there’s an element of that in the film, so it grows very expansively without doing much to it. It’s a poetic plant in a way for me.
Death and resurrection on a five-acre farm, that locals believe is “cursed” due to the former owner’s crop failure and subsequent suicide, is rich with pagan and Christian imagery. At the moment Jacob Yi (Steven Yuen) picks up a fist full of soil in Lincoln, Arkansas, the “best dirt in America,” he enters a pre-evangel folk story in a “hillbilly” land.
British historian and folklorist Francis Young confronts “The Myth of Medieval Paganism,” inviting the reader to reconsider what it meant to be pagan. Young points out that pagan in the middle ages was a derogatory term used by urban Christians to describe rural Christians who still (presumably) worshipped the ancient gods. He shows us that the Latin adjective paganus denotes rural persons, more colloquially, a “country bumpkin” or “hillbilly.” Instead of looking for “pagan seeming” practices, Young asks us to consider the “inventiveness and eccentricity” along with “very strange expressions of Christianity” as simply a result of imperfectly catechized Christian cultures. Flannery O’Connor would approve.
According to the L.A. Times, Chung cites O’Connor as an “inspiration [to him] for the way she portrayed rural Southerners searching for salvation.” Minari is haunted by O’Connor, as Chung explores the theme of misfits and “hard to find” good men (and women) that jolt our senses toward who we truly are, including our limitations.
Upon arrival in the rugged Ozarks, Jacob’s wife Monica (Yeri Han) wonders “What is this place?” The sheet metal home on wheels is more of a nightmare rather than the dream Jacob promised. She is incredulous, and resentful of the ten years he spent giving their savings to support his family. As the elder son, Jacob is a man of duty. He is stoic, unemotional, and intends to “finish what he started” in turning five acres into fifty, no matter the cost. Jacob tells his children, six-year-old David (Alan S. Kim), and pre-teen Anne (Noel Kate Cho) that “Daddy’s going to make a big garden.” Monica, who cannot see the vision, tells the children that they won’t be “staying long.”
Minari is told from the perspective of David (Chung’s boyhood self) who suddenly wakes up from the long trip to the wonder of his father’s dreamscape. He wants to take off running as fast as his little legs can travel in cowboy boots through the grass, but his mother warns, “Don’t run!” David has a serious medical condition; he will soon need surgery to correct the hole in his heart. Monica worries, as the nearest hospital is an hour away. Jacob has brought them to a perilous land. She listens to David’s heartbeat and tells him each night to prepare for heaven, and “keep praying.”
There are few Koreans near them; most are settled over in the city of Rogers, home to the first Walmart store. Monica deeply feels the loss of community. The Yis work at a local hatchery sexing chickens. The females are saved for meat and eggs, while the males are destroyed because they are “useless.” Jacob’s life to this point mirrors the male chicks. After a decade, he is proficient in his work, but Monica lags behind. This threatened her job back in California, and she times her skill in after-hours practice. Jacob reminds her that she is “fast enough for here.” The keen eye required for the tedious job symbolizes Jacob’s close watch on helping his wife flourish. But without grace, the work he demands of himself in his “big garden” will prove more destructive for both of them than the soul-killing hatchery.
Jacob began his farm “simultaneously trying to escape from and also hold on to certain things that has made him up to this point” states Yuen. He wanted to be an independent farmer, a self-made man, apart from community. Whatever he experienced back in California, caused him to doubt, not just his fellow man, but faith in anything other than himself. He shunned the idea of “magic,” turning away the practice of “dowsing” for water (a.k.a. water witching). He looked upon it as just another of the “hillbilly” superstitious ways, teaching David that Koreans “use their minds to find well water.” There was a great deal of satisfaction when he succeeded. Jacob desired to “connect and preserve what knowledge and culture he had left.” Later he realizes that his well is not deep enough to sustain the crops.
A friendly small-town banker loans Jacob the money for a tractor that is delivered by a holiness Pentecostal field worker named Paul (Will Patton). Paul offers to help, but Jacob assumes he won’t know the first thing about Korean vegetables. However, Paul does know a thing or two about farming and later proves to offer wise advice. He keeps old Korean bills in his wallet from time spent serving in the war. When he gives the money to little David, who whips out his own wallet, there is a sense of “transaction” between the old hillbilly and a new one.
Paul asks if he might pray over the farm, the soil, the family. Although not a believer, Jacob nervously smiles and grants him permission. Paul’s subdued prayer starts off in a quiet mumble that builds to a slow crescendo of sing-song imperceptible language. Slight movement threatens to break out into dance, and gush into a Holy Ghost frenzy. “Big things!” He declares over the family. “Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!” Both Jacob—and the audience—are not sure whether we have just witnessed the rantings of a wild crazy man, or the sacredness of a medieval pagan high priest.
Every Sunday, Paul carries a full-size wooden cross down the dirt roads and declares that this “is his church.” We know David needs healing of his physical heart, but we can’t help but wonder what “healing” Paul is seeking for his spiritual heart, and if this is connected to the time he spent in Korea. Like Jacob, he is working things out.
More than an inspiration, Paul embodies a character one could actually encounter in Arkansas circa nineteen-eighties. A “very strange expression of Christianity” was that some men carried crosses to symbolize and testify of their identification with Christ. As depicted in the film, it was not an unusual sight in the Ozarks, however strange it may seem to the viewer. After all, as O’Connor once said, “you shall know the truth and it will make you odd.”
Jacob arranges for Monica’s mother Soonja (Youn Yuh Jung) to come stay with them in order to relieve his wife’s loneliness. Soonja has never met her grandson. While the initial introduction should be one of joy, he finds his grandmother strange and un-American. Unlike other little boys who are physically active, David has learned to observe people in his quietude. He quickly sizes up Soonja and doesn’t like her. She can’t cook or read to him, like a “real grandmother.” She is no good in the all-important grandmotherly art of “baking cookies.” Besides, she “smells like Korea,” swears like a sailor, smokes, and wears men’s underwear. He detests the daily herb and deer antler soup from the old country that she makes for him as a healing elixir. It may as well be a witch’s brew as far as David is concerned.
Confirming his suspicions, Soonja calls David a “little bastard” when she loses in a game of cards and pronounces “a plague” on him. Unlike her gentle daughter Monica, she enjoys watching wrestlers on TV and delights in the violence. To many of us who grew up on the Beverly Hillbillies’ scrappy Granny Clampett (Irene Ryan)—always looking for a fight, proclaiming herself a certified M.D. (mountain doctor), and serving up medicinal “spring tonic”—Soonja’s eccentric character seems believable. Rather than a hackneyed cliché, mountain grandmothers are serious women like the spit-fire, rough-talking Mawmaw (Glenn Close) in J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, who was also determined to save her grandson. Although Korean, Soonja is every bit as hillbilly (pagan) as Paul, due to that quality O’Connor called “grotesque”:
In these [Southern] grotesque works, we find that the writer has made alive some experience which we are not accustomed to observing every day, or which the ordinary man may never experience in his ordinary life. We find that connections which we would expect in the customary kind of realism have been ignored, that there are strange skips and gaps which anyone trying to describe manners and customs would certainly not have left. Yet the characters have an inner coherence, if not always a coherence to their social framework. Their fictional qualities lean away from typical social patterns, toward mystery and the unexpected. It is this kind of realism that I want to consider.
Minari succeeds largely because of Chung’s ability to bring this “inner coherence” to each of his main characters. We “get” them. Soonja is not much for social convention and doesn’t like the way Monica babies David, and even though we understand his heart condition, we too want him to run. We cheer her taking him to the creek where she seeds the soil with the minari plant she brings from Korea. When it begins to cover the ground like weeds, she teaches David to rejoice and sing over it. Juxtaposed against his father’s teaching him to farm the scientific way, we find Soonja’s lessons convincing, even if less realistic.
Of course, there is the proverbial snake in Jacob’s five-acre garden. When David spies it running along a branch in the creek, Soonja tells him not to fear the snakes that you see, for “things that hide are more dangerous and scary.” She is alluding to the fear Monica unintentionally sows in David’s heart each night before he goes to sleep in preparing him for death through prayer and a hope to see heaven. This anxiety manifests itself in bed wetting.
Meanwhile, Jacob is working the farm in the evenings and on weekends. He comes in exhausted and unable to raise his arms to bathe. As Monica helps, he tells her that the hard work “makes me feel alive.” He is breaking free, finding joy in laboring on his own land, even though the well dried up, and he has to hook the irrigation line into county water. Monica is beside herself with the financial loss, especially when the water to the house is cut off. But coming to this “hillbilly place” was Jacob’s idea and he promises to take care of them.
The first dinner guest in the Yi’s home is Paul. Of course, he brings oil to anoint the trailer thresholds to ward off devils, rebuke the spirit of darkness, and bring healing. It is an ancient ritual practiced on humans and objects, in virtually every culture, and religion. When Paul asks if he can pray for him, Jacob, feeling justified with his new bumper crop replies, “No need. Come early to work.” The next morning, they box the produce with flyers announcing the Big Country Farm.
Monica is not satisfied with the situation and is planning to go back to California. Using money given to her by Soonja, they travel to Oklahoma City for a check on David’s heart. She remembers how they once thought they could “save” one another, and now wonders if their fighting is the cause of David’s sickness. “I’ve lost faith in you!” She tells Jacob, not realizing that her faith was wrongly placed all along. Even after getting miraculous news from the doctor, and a large order for produce, Monica is still determined to leave, and Jacob is determined to stay. Divided in heart and spirit, they travel back to Arkansas where tragedy awaits.
For all his striving and mental acumen, Jacob cannot save his family. He is closed off from the fantastical, the miraculous other-worldly vicarious substitution that Soonja exemplifies, the “wonderful” grace she sings about, and that Paul perceives in every warp and woof. Jacob’s gaze is downward to the ground. Paul points him “up to the heavens” as a sign. But it is Soonja who brings both the catastrophe and the eucatastrophe; the sudden joy in the poetic minari plant, the resilient Korean herb that prospers by the streams of living water. Given time, a connection to the soil, and water not provided by human hands, the Korean herb and the Yi family “grow the Arkansas way,” just as Paul prophesied. It is a grace that must first die in order to live again, a mystery known by many who dare call themselves “hillbilly.”
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