The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps. -Proverbs 16:9
In my first CSR post, I wrote about Nomadland’s cardiac geography: protagonist Fern’s wistful spirit and her fellow van-dwellers’ radical sense of independence. Their pride manifests as constant movement—perpetual flight—which suggests that spiritual restlessness results in physical waywardness.
A similar thread runs through another recent critically acclaimed film, though in slightly different tones. Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari, which won Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Golden Globes, is a semi-autobiographical portrait of his early childhood years in 1980s rural Arkansas. Most of the reviews I have seen for Minari focus variously on the film’s treatment of immigration, race, intergenerational conflict, labor, and even environmentalism. The chorus of media critics have directed their attention, especially, to how those issues relate to the American Dream. Although some reference the film’s Biblical themes, it is usually in passing or to inform the aforementioned subjects. Such observations are insightful, interesting, and important, but I suggest miss the point. Minari is not primarily about race, immigration, or the rest, nor the resilience of the human spirit. It is instead, like Nomadland, a testament to the futility of rebuffing God’s will. It is a story about pride and, in turn, a revelation of God’s grace.
Like Nomadland, Minari uses vocabularies of place to elucidate cardiac geographies—i.e., ways that our spiritual heartstrings affect, and are affected by, the spaces we inhabit. The difference is that, in Minari, the heart’s distortion is not thematically articulated by incessant displacement. Instead, Chung uses the rootedness of the setting to convey deeper truths. The film does begin with a “getting out,” a change in locale, but the move only establishes the arena in which the characters must face their demons.
The film opens with the Yi family’s move from California to an Arkansas farm that Jacob, the father, buys and moves into with his wife, son, daughter, and eventually mother-in-law. Once on the farm—what Jacob refers to in jest as Eden—it quickly becomes clear that at least two spirits are at work. Jacob is driven by the American (and immigrant) spirit of independence and entrepreneurialism. “We use our minds,” he tells his son David after mocking a dowser’smethod for well-finding. When David asks his dad about the plume of smoke rising from the chicken sexing facility where he works, Jacob replies: “Male chickens can’t lay eggs. They don’t taste good. So we have to be useful” (emphasis mine). The implication is clear: we determine our own worth through effort and utility.
Whereas Jacob’s modus operandi is bootstrapping, Monica, aptly named, is the Augustine mother whose faith is tested by her husband’s ambition, her son’s heart condition, and her own loneliness. She feels inadequate—“I’m not fast enough [at chicken sexing],” she tells her coworker—and doesn’t understand how their lives have become so far removed from her hopes and dreams. Though she tries to embrace Jacob’s vision for their farm and family, and to trust that God is in it, she doubts. What will they do if David’s heart fails so far from the nearest hospital? Who will buy Korean produce? What if we go broke? It is not fair to the children.
Jacob tolerates Monica’s Christianity but does not embrace it. Indeed, he is tolerant of many things: his farmhand Paul’s eccentricities; attending a country church, once, at Monica’s request; his mother-in-law. The only thing that Jacob does not do merely in concession, it seems, but embraces whole-heartedly, is to work to see his plans to fruition. Blinded by pride, he is unaware of the Biblical connotations that his name, well, and “big garden”—as Monica calls the farm—denote. When the well runs dry, Jacob continues to dig his own cisterns (Jeremiah 2:13), revealing a stubborn self-(in)sufficiency. Instead of paying for water from the county, he follows his own advice to his son earlier in the film: “We don’t pay for things that we can get for free.” Ironically, the sentiment points to the Gospel of unmerited grace. The irony escapes Jacob, though; he is still wrestling (Genesis 32:22-32).
As Eve Tushnet observes in America: The Jesuit Review, “Where Jacob tries hard to project strength, Paul [Jacob’s Christian farmhand] is visibly broken. He offers to bless Jacob and his wife, having seen that they are struggling; Jacob replies brusquely: ‘No need. Come early tomorrow—lots of work to do’” (para. 9). Despite Jacob’s claim that the farm has the “best dirt in America,” and his incessant work, the land will not produce through mere human effort. Jacob has not yet yielded to God’s provision.
Meanwhile, David grows closer to his grandmother Soon-ja—whose affection he at first rejects, even peeing in her “mountain water” (Mountain Dew). She teaches him card games, bandages his wounds, and soothes him to sleep. She also encourages him to be more physically active and calls him a “strong boy,” a welcome departure from the supposed fragility his parents assign him. In response to his dad’s plight, David’s newfound courage spurs him—heart murmur and all—to lug pales of water across the property from a creek that he and Soon-ja discover on one of their walks. Like his namesake, David is stronger than his family knows (1 Samuel 17:33).
Soon-ja points out that the creek is well-suited to grow minari, an East Asian water-celery used in various Korean foods. David ventures to the water’s edge and spots a snake on a tree limb. Soon-ja warns David not to disturb it: “With some things it’s better to see them than have them hide.” In Minari, as is so often the case, the snake-in-the-grass is hubris; we are often unaware of its cancerous presence, and in that ignorance are more susceptible to its malignant effects.
As the source of all sin, error, and deformity, pride is a spiritual condition of the heart. In giving David an actual heart condition, Chung points to the totalizing effect that original sin has on humanity. David, a child, suffers its real wages—none are exempt—and can only be saved by sacrificial love. In the scene where David expresses fear of dying, Soon-ja promises that she won’t let anything happen to him. She hugs him tightly as they fall asleep together, singing “Wonderful Minari.” That night she suffers a stroke and, although she survives, is left with severe physical and verbal impairment. Sometime later, to Jacob’s chagrin, Paul performs a kind of cleansing ritual, or exorcism, in the Yi’s home. When Paul enters Soon-ja’s bedroom he finds her staring in quiet horror at the dresser at the end of the bed, at what Paul perceives to be a demonic entity. It is a haunting scene and reminiscent of Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov: “How do you know he comes to visit me?”
The meaning of Soon-ja’s demonic visitation is not apparent until the family travels to Oklahoma City for David’s medical checkup. Preoccupied by his appointment with a potential vendor, Jacob carries his basket of vegetables into the exam room. For Monica it is shameful, another act of familial neglect in favor of his work. But there is good news. To Jacob and Monica’s surprise, the doctor says that the hole in David’s heart is getting smaller. “How?”, Monica asks, “[…] the murmur has been getting louder.” The doctor explains that it is normal for that to happen as the cavity shrinks. He can’t explain, however, why the hole is shrinking, other than “it must be the Ozark water.”
The timing of Soon-ja’s stroke relative to David’s miraculous prognosis suggests that her protective oath functions in an atoning way—at least, that is, in a symbolic/typological sense. In her physical debilitation (stroke) she takes on his bodily affliction (heart condition) so that it begins to heal. Too, the dresser that Soon-ja fixates on during Paul’s exorcism is the same one that falls on and injures David earlier in the story. On the spiritual battleground, she now faces evil in David’s place.
To an infinitely greater degree, Christ’s sacrifice on the tree makes it possible for our spiritual healing to begin, and, ultimately, for our physical bodies to be restored in the resurrection. Indeed, the root of all physical maladies is spiritual deformity; sin breeds not only spiritual depravity but also physical disease. Jesus took on our sin—He became sin (2 Corinthians 5:21)—so that we might escape its grip. When Christ heals our heart, we do not feel the full effects immediately. In media res, we continue to struggle. Like David, our spiritual heart murmur gets louder and louder—drumbeats of Christ’s armies on the warpath—until the final battle when sin and death are forever destroyed (1 Corinthians 15:26).
As yet, though, we are in the fray. Some doubt. Despite David’s unexpected and positive prognosis, Jacob and Monica continue to fight about the family’s future. She wants to return to California, and his obstinance remains: “Even if I fail, I have to finish what I started.” They realize that they can’t save each other and tacitly acknowledge the likelihood of a divorce. Monica and Jacob still do not recognize God’s grace, much less think to receive it for the sake of their marriage and farm.
But God is a consuming fire (Hebrews 12:29). When the Yi’s return home, their barn burns to the ground, almost killing Jacob and Monica as they try to salvage the crops. With no other choice, Jacob finally yields. In the final scene, in an act of trust and submission, he and Monica follow a dowser who marks a spot for a new well. David then accompanies his dad to the creek to harvest minari that Soon-ja planted. “It is a good place,” Jacob says.
In his review of the film for the Gospel Coalition, Eugene Park writes:
[Minari] 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 sustain us. But it is through our errors, not our perfection, that grace breaks into our hearts [1 Tim.1:14–16] (para. 11, emphasis mine).
For those who refuse to acknowledge their folly, who reject His good gift, the road leads everywhere and nowhere—Nomadland; Eden, Arkansas; the outer darkness. But if we lay down our pride and submit to God’s purposes, we find abundant life.
Tushnet’s description of the film is illuminative: “This is what childhood is often like, as small moments teach us something we don’t quite understand” (para. 2). Minari reminds us that we are all children—Davids and Jacobs and Soon-Jas—peering through a glass darkly (1 Corinthians 13:12) at truth Whose power is made perfect in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:19). To enter the Kingdom we must be as children (Matthew 18:3); dependent on God for all things.