Minari: The Fruit of the Spirit and the Fruit of Our Labor

The film Minari presents a striking picture of immigrant labor, full of joy, generosity, and faithfulness, rather than the envy and competition engendered by capitalism.

MIDWAY through the new film Minari, grandmother Soonja (Yuh-Jung Youn) extols the virtues of the spicy Korean herb that gives the film its name. Standing on the edge of a creek in the Arkansas woods, Soonja praises the plant as she scatters its seeds into foreign soil. “Minari is truly the best,” she tells her grandson David (Alan S. Kim). “It grows anywhere, like weeds, so anyone can pick and eat it. Rich or poor, anyone can enjoy it and be healthy.” Translating his grandmother’s Korean into English, David begins to sing, “Minari, minari, minari, wonderful, wonderful, minari.”

David’s simple song captures the beauty of not only the herb his grandmother imports into the US, but the immigrants themselves. Spoken almost entirely in Korean, Minari follows recent immigrants Jacob (Steven Yeun) and Monica Yi (Yeri Han) as they move their family from California to Arkansas in the mid-1980s. Frustrated with his job of “chicken sexing” (separating male chicks from female chicks), Jacob follows a uniquely Korean spin on the American Dream, planning to establish a farm to grow Korean crops he can sell to grocers and restaurants serving immigrant populations. While the film never shies away from the challenges the Yi family faces, writer/director Lee Isaac Chung and his collaborators never fail to show the value of labor and the beauty that immigrants bring to their new homelands.

As Jacob proudly shows his family their new home in the movie’s first scene, David and his older sister Anne (Noel Kate Cho) respond with excitement, but Monica cannot mask her concern. The space through which Jacob parades them neither calms her fears for her family’s safety in their leaky, creaky mobile home, nor does it ease her longing for the Korean community they left behind in California. When Jacob brags to the kids about the garden they’ll make here, Monica smacks her husband on the arm and declares in broken English, “Garden of Eden small!”

“No,” Jacob responds in the same language. “Garden of Eden big! Like this!”

More than a gesture towards his wife’s Christian faith, Jacob’s biblical allusion reflects his hopes for the land, hope that the movie endorses. For Jacob, Arkansas represents a new start for the Yis, one in which his occupation matters. “I worked hard for ten years! Ten years!” he shouts in a later argument with Monica, “Staring at chicken butts all day. Working myself to the bone. For what?” Although Monica coldly contends that he has no money because he sent it to his parents in Korea, it’s clear that he has more in mind than just his bank account. Jacob’s labor deserves dignity, and the film agrees.

Chung and cinematographer Lachlan Milne use bleak blues and shadows to shoot the poultry plant in which Jacob and Monica work. Despite the presence of Monica’s friend Mrs. Oh (Esther Moon), chicken sexing feels like dire drudgery. Conversely, Chung and Milne present the Yis’ land as rich and verdant, as the camera lovingly floats above and within the plot. Drone shots capture the beatific smile on Jacob’s face as his rusty old tractor tills up lines for his crops. Golden rays of sun glisten on the leaves of the green grass through which Anne and David run.

When his first crop comes to fruition, Jacob smiles at his partner Paul (Will Patton) and declares, “Good work. Very good work. Very good work.” While any allusions Jacob makes to the pronouncement made at the end of God’s own work of creation may be unintentional, the movie certainly sees something noble about their handiwork. Emile Mosseri’s score soars as the two look up to see a lone ray of light pointing through an opening in the clouds above, as if God’s own finger touched the land.

Like the American pioneer stories that inspired it, Minari sometimes lets Jacob’s effort drive the plot. He is the one who found the land, who purchases equipment, and who contacts restaurants. But the film does not restrict its focus to Jacob as an individual actor. Throughout the film, we see him working with David, Anne, and Paul. The crop grows only with their communal effort.

Community is even more pronounced in Monica’s domestic work, which Chung and editor Harry Yoon show in scenes juxtaposed with those of farming. Monica keeps the children fed and clothed so Jacob can be in the field. She settles her mother Soonja, who herself works in the house, and even arranges David’s trips to the hospital to see specialists for his heart murmur, a trip that allows Jacob to make his first connection with a vendor.

Despite the differences in their approaches, both Monica and Jacob are treated with equal respect by the film. The two worry often about money. They have frank conversations about how their economic troubles affect their relationship, and we see the Yis struggle when they cannot pay their water bill. But the film never diminishes the dignity of their labor, nor does it imagine it in solitary terms. Their work matters and enriches their communities.

The Yis’ contributions to their larger communities are located by the film primarily in the Christian groups they join. Overcoming his own ideas of self-sufficiency, Jacob follows Monica in joining a nearby Baptist church. Although the evangelical church the Yis attend is the primary site of microaggressions captured by the film, including the pastor forcing the visiting family to stand up in the middle of service so they can be “welcomed” by the congregation, it also becomes a place of connection for the family. Even a boy who introduces himself by asking David “Why is your face so flat?” (David’s response: “It’s not?”) becomes fast friends with the younger Yi and excitedly learns a Korean game Soonja brought with her to the US.

But the most important connection to the larger community is Paul, played with deep empathy by Patton. We first meet Paul when he delivers a tractor to Jacob, and despite his awkward attempts to bond with the family by recounting his service in the Korean war (a minor gaffe to me, but I am a white American, who has committed more microaggressions than I’ll ever receive), he expresses nothing but excitement over the Yis’ presence. During their first conversation together, Paul drops his head in prayer to thank God for the family before reassuring Jacob that God has “big things” in mind for them. He rightly recognizes that their Arkansas home is improved by the family’s presence. 

Paul takes his love for the Yis far beyond mere neighborly politeness to participate in the cultivation. He becomes a literal co-laborer with Jacob, spending time with him in the fields, dirt smeared on his ragged clothes and sweat collecting in his white durag. None of this prevents Paul from being explicitly spiritual, as when he performs an exorcism to cleanse the land of evil spirits still lingering after the previous occupants’ suicide. But he follows the ritual with action, putting his fingers in the soil along with Jacob.

Paul’s faith is best captured by a short scene in which the Yis, driving home from church, encounter him walking down the road. Dressed only in shorts and a sleeveless red shirt, Paul carries on his back a giant wooden cross.

Jacob pulls up with a smile and laughs at the strange sight of his friend. “What are you doing?” he asks with a chuckle.

“It’s Sunday,” Paul says between pants of breath. “This is my church.” Then he turns attention back to their shared vocation, saying, “I’ll see you Monday.” Again, the image of Paul and his solitary cross might seem to endorse individual action, but the very fact that we see his “church” through the perspective of the Yis reminds us that his Christian discipleship is necessarily plural. His cross-carrying practice ties directly into his collective work with the Yis’ and his neighbors.

As this commitment suggests, Minari makes connects the fruit of our labor and the fruits of the spirit. The characters’ toil reflects God’s love for humanity. Whether it’s Monica and Soonja acting inside the home or Jacob and Paul in the field, work matters.

Chung and Yoo underscore this point by juxtaposing two expressions of faith. One scene finds the pastor of the Yis’ church giving a standard evangelical salvation sermon. His words paint a picture of Jesus greeting the congregants in heaven, cutting short their moment of happiness to shame the flock. Noting that many of the congregation’s neighbors are absent, the pastor’s Jesus asks, “Why didn’t you preach the good word of the gospel to them?” As if to rebuke the question, the movie cuts to a wide shot of Paul in the distance, silently carrying his cross.

It’s impossible to miss the correlation between Paul’s work with Jacob and his work carrying the cross. Loving his neighbors with his toil, acknowledging the value of Jacob and Monica’s vocations, is fundamental Christian living.

It’s also impossible to miss a connection between the film’s portrayal of farming and one of the Bible’s most important agricultural metaphors. The author of Galatians 5 follows a list of worldly indulgences such as enmity and anger by identifying the fruit of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (22-23). These attributes, the author contends, make plain the presence of God in followers of Christ. Where many have claimed to find these qualities in business people of all stripes, it’s hard to reconcile capitalism with the chapter’s final verse: “Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another” (26).

Minari presents a more striking picture of joy, generosity, and faithfulness in Jacob’s work with Paul, with Monica’s work with Soonja, work driven not by competition and envy, but by the conviction that their labor matters.

Minari reminds us why we fight exploitation by showing us the beauty of labor. When Jacob and Paul toil the land, viewers see not only the power of their sweat and muscles, but the richness of the crop they sow. When Monica secures her family’s home and makes it a space of hospitality for Paul and other guests, viewers watch as she feeds and sustains those around her. The work in Minari needs no middle-men, no managers to inspect, no businessmen to evaluate. The work is good in and of itself.

Unsurprisingly, minari itself is the best way to think about the role of work in Minari. As Soonja explains, minari improves the lives of everyone around it, bettering those sharing space with it. As an explicitly foreign plant, minari serves as a metaphor for immigrants, who will enrich the land if they are welcomed. The fruits of the spirit identified in Galatians – the kindness, generosity, and faithfulness that reveal the work of the Holy Spirit – drives us to this welcome and invites us to help cultivate the fruit of our collective labor. Only then can we harvest produce like minari, which brings healing and substance to everyone around. 


Joe George writes about pop culture and literature for Tor.com, Bloody Disgusting, and Think Christian. He collects his work at joewriteswords.com and tweets nonsense from @jageorgeii.


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