As a child, I dreaded being assigned the “family tree” project. As the daughter of a first-generation Korean immigrant mother and a second-generation, half-Lebanese father, I wasn’t exactly set up for success. I would usually put the project off until the night before, then, in a panic, ask my parents for the names of their parents and their siblings, half of which I couldn’t spell, and with equal parts frustration and shame write a series of question marks for great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents.
My complex heritage, along with being part of a constantly relocating US military family, also made the common question, “Where are you from?” difficult to answer. At times, my family seemed to be from nowhere. I could easily believe we had sprung up from the ground, grown from scattered seeds.
When I saw the trailer for A24’s Minari last year, I was floored by its simplicity and the beauty of actors with Korean features in a starkly American setting. We were six months into a global pandemic that was first identified in China, and some used that fact to justify hatred and violence toward their Asian neighbors. Advocacy group Stop AAPI Hate reported nearly 3,800 harassment and assault incidents against Asian Americans from mid-March 2020 through February 2021. The film released during a time when many Asian Americans, so used to being silent and invisible, were being seen for all the wrong reasons.
Now, Minari is nominated for six Academy Awards, following a year in which a Korean film with a Korean director won Best Picture. Yet this film is not a morality tale of an Asian family fighting the indignities of 1980s racism. Rather, it’s an invitation to sit with the writer/director, Lee Isaac Chung, as he shares his childhood memories of loss, identity, and the third culture created when two collide into one another. It offers an opportunity for the church especially to embrace those who are wrestling with belonging and acceptance.
We meet the Yi family as they drive up to their mobile home in rural Arkansas. The parents, Jacob (Steven Yeun) and Monica (Han Ye-ri), want better opportunities elsewhere after finding life in California too expensive and the work too demanding. Their children, Anne (Noel Cho) and David (Alan S. Kim), are less bothered by the move than by the constant fights between their parents about Jacob’s idea to start a farm growing Korean fruits and vegetables with the little money they’ve saved.
The couple faces many pressures in their new life: Monica is mourning the Korean church community they’ve left and is uncertain that the farm is tenable. They live far away from other Korean Americans. More importantly, they’re far from a hospital for David’s weak heart. Jacob asks for Monica’s patience while working the land. Along the way, he befriends and hires Paul (Will Patton), a white Korean War veteran and charismatic Christian who speaks in tongues. Paul is unabashedly enthusiastic about Jacob’s dream, encouraging him when he faces failure.
As a concession to his wife, Jacob offers to bring his mother-in-law over from Korea to help with childcare. Soonja (Youn Yuh-jung) was widowed at a young age and has learned to not take life too seriously in her quest to survive as a single mom. Her grandchildren treat her warily, noticing that nothing she does is like the American grandmothers they’ve seen on TV. She can’t cook, she gambles and curses, and her Korean mannerisms confuse them as third-culture kids.
Despite the children holding her at arms’ length, Soonja persists in seeing them for who they are, always assuming the best about their intentions and finding the bright side of their life together. She optimistically plants minari seeds along a nearby creek and explains, “Minari is truly the best. It grows anywhere, like weeds. ... Rich or poor, anyone can enjoy it and be healthy. Minari can be put in kimchi, put in stew, put in soup. It can be medicine if you are sick. Minari is wonderful, wonderful!”
Though the film is semi-autobiographical, it feels like an elegy to Chung’s grandmother, who gave her last years to raise him and his sister. He brings her life of anonymity into the spotlight for his larger story of sacrifice, joy in hardship, and growing where you are—however unwillingly—planted. As Chung says in his Fresh Air interview, “I guess I just hope that this film would somehow capture who she was, someone who is invisible. I would hope that she would be seen …”
While watching, I remembered the Korean women who have loved and sacrificed for me anew. My grandmother, who almost moved to the States with us, would crack up while watching American wrestling and scold my mom about being easier on me and my brother. My aunts, who welcomed us into Korean life with abundant food and good humor. The women who cleaned, served, and taught us their first language at the Korean American churches I grew up in. My mother, who worked and pushed our family into stability, worlds away from the want she and my father experienced as children.
These women helped me, a third-culture kid who never knew how to fit in, feel seen. Yet because of their gender, ethnicity, and class, they lived with a cloud of invisibility, something Chung understands.
The kingdom of God flips societal recognition on its head (Matt. 20:16). In the parable of the sheep and the goats, Jesus says he will recognize his followers by those who served the least of these: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me” (Matt. 25:35–36). The women who do much of this work in life have been seen by Jesus each step of the way, and those who do it in faith receive their reward in death.
But the body of Christ doesn’t have to wait to recognize those who are great in his kingdom. Each day we have the chance to see with the eyes of Jesus those who labor in the margins for our well-being, collectively and individually. The custodians, home health providers, and spa workers. The small-scale farmer, the chicken sexer, the seasonal worker. What would it look like to not only see but call them and their families into community?
In a prominent scene for evangelical viewers, the Yis are warmly welcomed mid-service as the pastor asks for new visitors to stand. At a predominantly white church, they stand out as “different.” After service, church members are friendly but clearly lack cross-cultural understanding. The church kids try to connect with Anne and David but seem to see Asian stereotypes instead of kids just like them.
A believer himself, Chung makes it clear that the congregation isn’t the film’s villain, but these scenes point to a lack of imagination in the church. Unlike their charismatic friend Paul, who has so little and yet wholeheartedly embraces the Yi family, the people in this church do little to reach out.
To serve those on the margins implies that we will open up our lives and stretch our comfort zones to understand those who are different from us. We ask, “What do you need?” and listen. We question our own expectations and ideas about what different groups should be like and put real effort into learning who they actually are, seeing and welcoming our differences. Minari invites us to move toward others in humility, praying to have the heart of Jesus along the way.
Jennifer Clark has lived in three countries and consumes as much movies and culture as her family life allows. She is the community manager for Area Code Network.