When I first saw the trailer for Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari, I was floored with excitement. As a Korean American, my phone blew up with others in my community anticipating cathartic tears from our rekindled childhood. After viewing Minari, though, my eyes were dry of any tears of nostalgia or trauma. But my soul was full. Chung did not reach for the easy, simple fruit of creating a feel-good story of his upbringing, but rather “something that got at spiritual matters and what it means to be a human being. What it means to be a man. What it feels like to be a failure.”
Chung, a Christian, wrote to me:
I made the film with the conviction and hope that we share much in common as human beings. Sometimes Korean Americans can feel alienation in their communities due to race, and they can feel further alienation in their own families while navigating cultural and language barriers with older generations. My desire was to go beyond these apparent divisions and look for the human story within this film’s setting and people.
Minari reminds us of the truths of Hebrews 11:13–14, that we are “strangers and exiles on [this] earth . . . seeking a homeland.”
Search for Eden
The film—out today in select theaters or virtual screenings—follows Jacob Yi (Steven Yeun), who leads his family from California’s comforts to the beautiful but lonely Ozarks of Arkansas to build a “big, big garden.” With the “best dirt in America,” he hopes his farm’s crops will be bountiful and profitable.
Chung wanted viewers to resonate with this desire to return to Eden. “Of all texts, Scripture was most likely the biggest reference for the script,” he told me. “The Bible includes many stories about gardens and farming, and the entire arc of its narrative seems to place key moments of betrayal and redemption within gardens. Minari is a story of immigrants, but at its heart, it’s about a family trying to find a new life. They’ve left one garden and are in search of another.”
The film’s central conflict comes when Jacob’s dreams of a flourishing garden clash with his wife Monica (Yeri Han), whose focus is on the flourishing of the family itself, especially their young son (Alan S. Kim), who has a weak heart. As the story progresses, Jacob’s garden task turns out to be about much more than just producing a healthy crop and being a successful farmer. It’s also about being cultivated as a healthy man and husband, father and friend.
Watering our Gardens
Much of the film’s drama stems from Jacob’s search for an essential ingredient for his farm: a water source. His search for a nourishing well—“Jacob’s well,” another biblical reference (John 4:6)—is full of setbacks.
All gardens require water to thrive and bear fruit. Often we seek sustenance for the garden of our soul by filling it with achievements, wealth, power, affirmation. Like Jacob, we can pride ourselves on watering our gardens ourselves, skeptical of any outside help. With enough effort or wit, we can find our own wells to sustain our souls.
As a believer, Chung knows where we ultimately find everlasting water (John 4:14). And even though the family in the film are church-going Christians, Chung doesn’t hit the audience over the head with biblical lessons or lectures about looking for water in the wrong place. It’s not a “Christian film” in the buttoned-up, “wrapped with a redemptive bow” sense. Instead, Minari chooses to portray the complexity and nuances of faith.
Chung noted to me:
I’ve experienced various expressions of faith and faithlessness myself, and I wanted to try working the way Dostoevsky approached faith in his books, by allowing different characters to express or wrestle with a facet of the author’s own internal life. He gives his characters free rein to do this and lets them find grace and redemption in surprising, unorthodox ways.
Not a ‘Christian film’ in the buttoned-up, ‘wrapped with a redemptive bow’ sense. Instead, Minari chooses to portray the complexity and nuances of faith.
I’m glad Minari doesn’t end with a simple, happy ending after some revelation or prayer from the Yi family. Instead, they have to deal with the consequences of their imperfect actions together: joy, pain, laughter, and heartbreak. The way Chung directs the film accurately captures the lives and testimonies of those who fumble their way to Christ as living water. It’s often nonlinear and messy, full of relapses into searching for sustenance in the wrong things. At times we forget to water our gardens with truth from Scripture, or we even begin to doubt if God will even sustain us. But it is through our errors, not our perfection, that grace breaks into our hearts (1 Tim.1:14–16).
Resilience of Minari
As a son of a Korean immigrant family, I came away from Minari not with justified resentment of my parent’s foreign cultural values, nor with frustration over my identity as a Korean American in today’s society. Instead, I felt grateful for my family’s resilience. Amid my parents’ struggles to provide for our family—the fights that echoed in our house, the loneliness we all felt in our unique ways—we held on to each other, for we were all we had.
Many immigrant families carry the resilience of minari—a Korean herb that grows easily in wet soil. Grandma Soonja (Yuh-jung Youn) plants minari near the creek on their farm, stating, “It grows anywhere, like weeds!” And sure enough, for all of Jacob’s dreams of a vibrant farm, it’s only the minari that, in the end, produces a crop worthy of being picked.
I wonder if the church in America, especially now, can take note of the resilience pictured in Minari—and the countless immigrant believers who make up its body. Rather than seeking sharper lines for our tribes in a secularizing age, where faith is already difficult to cultivate, what if we found strength in the whole diverse body of Christ? Instead of going it alone and trying to bear fruit in our own gardens, what if we partnered more with other “gardeners” in God’s field, learning from one another’s successes and failures?
Rather than seeking sharper lines for our tribes in a secularizing age, where faith is already difficult to cultivate, what if we found strength in the whole diverse body of Christ?
Every human is a gardener at heart, haunted by a longing for Eden, as Minari masterfully shows. Yet no earthly place we’ve settled in—or migrated from—will ever satisfy our desire for a better country, the “heavenly one” where God’s people will dwell forever with Christ (Heb. 11:16). That’s where we’ll find Eden again. Every human is ultimately a migrant farmer, always restlessly seeking for that place. Let’s help each other on that journey—pointed in the right direction and rooted in soil fed by living water.
As the Yi family comes to see in Minari, seasons and crops come and go, but family endures. Everyone in Christ will be family forever, no matter tribe, tongue, or nation. Let’s live in light of that now.
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