This has been a challenging week, nay, year, for Asian Americans. We began the pandemic warding off evil stares or outright demands to “go back to your country” while simultaneously trying to deal with a global shutdown and the end of normalcy that was hardship enough for everyone else. A year later, we are still contending with COVID, and the stories of anti-Asian violence just seem to get worse and worse, as evidenced most recently by the murders of eight people in the Atlanta area, six of whom were Asian women. The day that I woke up to the news about these attacks, I had been planning to work on this article about Minari. I tweeted:
Today all I want to do is sit and watch @MinariMovie over and over. I'm writing about the healing power of this movie for @christandpc. We need it now more than ever, as we mourn more anti-Asian violence. Four of the victims were Korean. Shooter was Baptist. Lord, have mercy. pic.twitter.com/NGcNubl2rM
— Helen Lee (@HelenLeeBooks) March 17, 2021
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that the movie was such a gift in these trying times in which Asian Americans are being literally erased from existence. Writer-director Lee Isaac Chung’s semi-autobiographical Minari provides us with a completely opposite and healing message: that an Asian American family is worth knowing, its story worth telling, worth watching, worth celebrating. Sure, it was easy for me to love this Oscar-nominated film about a Korean American immigrant family in the 80s that transitions to Arkansas in a continuing quest for a better life. In addition to the resonance with my own childhood, Minari features my favorite leading actor—Steven Yeun, the only reason I subjected myself to multiple seasons of The Walking Dead—adorable, bilingual kids who inspire me to encourage my own sons to keep learning our mother tongue, a college friend who served as the movie’s inspired editor (Harry Yoon), and a story that felt more like home to me than other recent, popular Asian-centric movies such as Crazy Rich Asians, The Farewell, or Parasite. I was born to adore this film.
But just in the manner that the “wonderful, wonderful minari” plant can work its magic as you ingest it, nourishing, cleansing, and purifying you from the inside out, so too can this movie resonate whether or not you have a similar story as the child of Korean immigrants. “Minari is so good for you,” Soonja (Youn Yuh-jung) tells her grandson David, after she arrives from Korea to help the Yis weather the transition and scatters the eponymous seeds on the creek banks near the family’s newly-acquired farmland. “Anyone can find it, eat it and be healthy.” Is she talking about the plant or the movie? I’m pretty sure the answer is both.
Truth be told, I cannot remember eating actual minari myself, although my parents assure me that I would have, given the amount they were given by one of their friends who similarly grew it in abundance near a stream behind his home. But I will never forget this movie. The promotional poster describes Minari as “the movie we need right now,” and oh, how true that has been for me. But I would go so far as to say it’s the movie the church needs most of all, and if you haven’t seen it yet, get thee to a streaming service pronto, fully consume it, and open yourself to its wonderful, wonderful healing power.Like a good parable, Minari’s subtle, life-giving messages are there for those who make the personal investment to seek them out.
This may be harder than it sounds. Minari showcases such a particular time and place with types of characters who have never before been featured in a mass-market film, and one’s instinct may be to pass it by because it’s so “foreign.” At least that’s how the Hollywood Foreign Press Association designated the film when they awarded the movie its “Best Foreign Language Film” prize—to the chagrin of countless fans who were indignant that a film about a fully Korean American experience could be so labeled. But it’s not just the way Korean is interwoven throughout the film that makes it otherworldly to the casual observer. It’s also the discomfort that comes from the flow of cultural references and images that will confuse and confound someone who didn’t grow up in a similar context—whether it’s seeing the unfavorable work immigrant families undertake just to survive (in this case, chicken sexing), or encountering the favorite method of earwax removal undertaken by Korean mothers everywhere (myself included!). For those who are not naturally delighted by all the cultural cues, there is extra work involved to immerse yourself in the story and the characters. But like a good parable, Minari’s subtle, life-giving messages are there for those who make the personal investment to seek them out.
It’s also a family story, and by that, I don’t mean that it is a story about the Yi family. This is an overtly Christian family, with the full range of faith journeys represented, from the devotion of Monica (Han Ye-ri), the mom, to the skepticism and cynicism of Jacob, the dad (Steven Yeun), to the innocence of young faith represented by the two kids, Anne and David (the perfectly cast duo of Noel Kate Cho and ultra-adorable Alan Kim). Viewers will discover themes of perseverance, acceptance, forgiveness, and redemption that are powerfully depicted yet not delivered in a Bible-thumping way. As American believers who are not Korean watch Minari, I wonder if they will be able to embrace the tale of the Yis not as one of foreigners, but as the story of fellow family members in the body of Christ. And then, as they watch the Yis experience the hardships of immigrant life and weather an assortment of cultural micro- and macroaggressions, can they make the even bigger leap of empathizing with these fellow spiritual cousins, aunts and uncles, and an unforgettable sharp-tongued, card-playing, non-baking grandmother?
For me, I experienced the opposite dynamic, as I naturally resonated with the Yis given how it reflected unique aspects of my own childhood. I especially wanted to be indignant on their behalf when they encountered cringe-worthy moments from other white Southern believers. My immediate instinct, I am embarrassed to say, was to write off these characters as ignorant and culturally inept. All that has happened since the 2016 election has revealed the deep divides in the church, especially between conservative white evangelicals and Christians of color, and I know many people of color who have walked away from evangelicalism because the continued trauma and pain of staying is too high. But Minari’s healing way is to both help Asian Americans feel seen and valued, as well as challenge us all, Korean or not, in ways we might never have predicted. As you watch, you loosen your grip on your own assumptions and discover rays of light in key characters that make it difficult to villainize any of them for too long. And that approach is both intentional and a reflection of the Christian faith of the filmmakers. I recently spoke to my friend Harry—who as I mentioned served as the film’s editor—about the ways that various characters were depicted, and he replied:
People who you think might be a particular caricature are complex and deep and nuanced. And I think that ultimately comes from a desire to show the image of God in all the characters, the imago dei, to say that it’s worthwhile for us to dig deeper and to see past our assumptions and to see worth and beauty and dignity in everyone.
In his book Culture Care, Makoto Fujimura says that artists “turn ideas and experiences into imaginative worlds for sheer enjoyment and to expand the scope of our empathy.” This empathy is exactly the medicine the church needs so much more of right now: empathy for those who are white to truly seek to understand the lived experiences and heartaches of people of color; empathy for those on the margins, who like Jacob are suspicious toward those in the dominant culture. The church seems to have somehow lost its appetite for empathy in favor of polarization; like junk food, the latter is easy to consume and even makes us feel good while it is devoid of any nutritional value. But empathy must be cultivated, tended to, and regularly harvested; like minari itself, it may be unfamiliar to our taste buds and require a leap of faith to try. But the more we consume it, the more likely it is that we will want more of it and then share it with others, in the same way that my parents’ friends so freely gifted us with minari when I was a child.How healing it would be, in the wake of the kinds of traumas that we have had to witness again and again this year against Asian Americans, to hear empathetic words from our white Christian brothers and sisters.
How healing it would be, in the wake of the kinds of traumas that we have had to witness again and again this year against Asian Americans, to hear empathetic words from our church family, especially from our white Christian brothers and sisters: that we matter, that our pain is their pain, that our stories are their stories. Minari provides a way for the white church to begin leaning into experiences that may appear so different from its own; as another amazing aspect to its healing power, something happens when non-Koreans watch this movie about this one unique Korean American family. As they see specific moments imbued with cultural meaning—such as Monica receiving gifts of red pepper flakes and dried anchovies from Korea that her mother brings, then shedding tears at experiencing the comfort of home when she is thousands of miles away from her native land—our hearts as viewers can’t help but be touched whether we have any idea what those dried anchovies are for or not. “The truth of that moment is not the detail itself,” Harry says. “But when it’s tied to character and relationship, I think it reminds you of the way you relate to people, the way you relate to home, the way you relate to a family member. It unlocks that truth and that identification with you, and it’s only specificity that can do that.” So it’s actually not colorblindness that leads us to greater unity. It’s giving people the space and freedom to lean into their God-given ethnic uniqueness that leads to a more universal understanding and connection.
In the last chapter of the Bible, Revelation 22, John paints a picture of the way in which all the nations will be healed, through the leaves from the tree of life, which change each month as twelve crops are grown and available to those in God’s restored city of Jerusalem. From now on, I will picture this tree with leaves of minari, imagining it as one of the twelve crops that will bring healing to people from every tribe, tongue, and nation. The same can be true for people on earth as it is in heaven. Go see Minari. Immerse yourself in all the wonderful, wonderful, goodness of this gracious, faith-filled film. As you watch the story of this one particular Korean American family fill the screen, may your heart, mind, and soul grow in empathy and solidarity with your full family in Christ. And may the sin-sickness that remains deeply embedded in the American church and nation, causing so many of our current ailments, be rooted out and replaced with a wholeness that only Jesus our master Healer can provide.