Minari: Finding the Garden of Eden
Updated: May 26, 2022
These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. - Hebrews 11:13-14
Minari is a special film. Lee Isaac Chung’s lyrical film isn’t a dream but it can sure feel like one at times. Somehow the perfect chord was struck, a balance between a Malick-esque dreaminess and the conventional coming-of-age narrative that manages to be its own canvas. Steve Yeun is Jacob Yi, a father to his kids David (Alan S. Kim, so natural in what is one the greatest child performances of all time) and Anne, and a husband to Monica Yi. Set in the 80s, Jacob and Monica are immigrants from Korea and after years of tediously sexing chickens in California, Jacob moves them to Arkansas where “the best dirt in America” resides. Set in Arkansas but filmed in Oklahoma, the lush Oak trees and tall green grass shining in the shimmer of the sun has never looked better.
While the scenery is green and the landscape glows with hope, the only one who sees it is Jacob. Monica and Jacob’s already fractured marriage begins to crack even more under the pressure of money, the other not-so-natural green stuff that Jacob intends to collect through the arduous process of farming. With the help of the eccentric Paul (a determined Will Patton, always nice to see his face even when it’s as rugged as it is here), he gets to work, feeling alive, tilling and toiling in the outdoors. It’s his version of the American dream, but Monica’s version not so much. Monica is more pragmatic about the matters at hand; less ego and more concern for her family rather than the land. She’s also more willing to assimilate to their new world, leaving her husband even farther behind in the tractor dust. However, this isn’t just a story about a struggling marriage and assimilation.
This is partly David’s story too. When his grandma Soonja arrives from Korea to be with the family, David is stuck. She’s too cool, laid back, and not the typical cookie-baking grandma he would expect to have in America. He even says at one point she “smells Korean.” Of course, he comes around, and the naturalism of the movie both grounds the stakes of the plot and brings these two together so movingly.
It’s reminiscent of Jean Renoir’s wonderful 1945 film, The Southerner, with its southern setting and spiritual study of human resilience. Also, notice the biblical names here- Jacob is the father of the family, David is the young, precocious kid with a hole in his heart, and Paul is the zealous man of faith who literally carries a cross every Sunday on the dirt roads. However, this isn’t played for laughs or condescension (Jacob’s discomfort further proves his pride). Paul helps the Yi family and is an earnest source of optimism and hope for them. A painting of Jesus with a flock of sheep hangs in their living room, Monica listens to hymns, and tells David to “never forget to pray.”
Arkansas is the Garden of Eden for the Yi family and the eponymous minari is the plant that can grow no matter where its seed is planted. This is more than an immigration story, it’s the story of a family searching for that long lost Garden of Eden. It’s not a Christian movie but it’s more Christian in its spiritual subtlety than any of the banal “Faith-Based” films that come out these days, slapping you in the face with their facile lectures and overt spell-it-out-for-you simplicity.
Minari is a true representation of faith, redemption, and the flaws of humanity. It’s a reminder to enjoy the beauty of the gleam of the trees (an image of hope in other recent movies- Soul, The Sound of Metal) and to work hard on that great soil, but to never forget why that beauty exists and why that soil can be seeded. It’s also a reminder for connection, working outdoors is fulfilling but sitting on the porch and listening to the crickets with your family is even better. Monica and the kids go with Jacob to Oklahoma City to finally sell his produce, but the payoff of his hard work doesn’t go as expected and while Monica is in the passenger seat with him, she’s the farthest she’s ever been from him.
My dad always tells me to remember that “what you do is not who you are.” As humans, we’ll farm and work and farm and work, searching for that perfect Garden of Eden that no longer exists on earth only to inevitably get lost in ourselves and what we’re trying to achieve. We are always failing because we are human and we are human because we are always failing. And it’s still not even that simple. This is the truth of faith and life. Minari doesn’t necessarily have a happy ending because it recognizes this truth. What also exists with this truth is grace and Minari also recognizes this as well. There is always that everflowing water called grace. You can find it, you just have to use your divine rod of faith and plant your garden (some minari seeds). Then remember to look up, take a break from the work, and let others accompany you on the fertile soil of your soul.