You know what was refreshing about Lee Isaac Chung's Minari? It included elements like race and culture (most of the movie is subtitled, after all) and faith, but it wasn't really about any of these--instead, the focus was kept tight around the theme of family. (And of course I'm not saying that it's bad to make movies that do focus on these elements; just that a movie also can include them without being primarily about them.) That's what made this movie feel more like a glimpse at life: we are not always having crises of faith or remarking on our culture, but we are often going through serious things in our close relationships. Because relationships, especially those of the close inner family, take work.
When the family moves from California to rural Arkansas, at first it seems like Jacob is the optimistic one, while his wife seems more hesitant, you could almost say the more negative one of the two. As the film goes on, however you realize that she has this type of reaction to their new home because she knows her husband. She knows that he is so excited about this new place because he's trying to prove something to himself, not because he wants to set up a new and better life for his children. Which still isn't to say that he doesn't love his family; he's not a villain, just a fallible man, as Monica is a fallible woman. Jacob talks to his children and tells them about the work he's doing. When he notices his wife is lonely, he brings her mother to live with them and later suggests going to church so that she can have community.
While the children seem to respond well to the chance for community that church offers, the parents don't really seem to connect with anyone there. But Monica does talk with her fellow Korean coworker and she gets more Paul, deciding to see him simply as a man who has been kind to her family rather than a nutcase. So Monica who didn't want to move to this place does begin to settle--even as Jacob grows more distant, prompting her to want to leave rather than continue to build roots here with him.
Notice what the most intimate scene is between the husband and wife. When Jacob has been overworking outside to keep the plants watered and can barely move his arms, Monica helps him take his shirt off and wash his hair in the bathtub. This is love, no? Love is not just passionate, emotional, and physical feelings. Love is service. Love is humility. Love is valuing another person. It's when they realize together that they want to go back to this love for each other and their family above all other worries that the family unit seems to be mending.
All of this is without even talking about the grandma, whose relationship with the children and in particular David is central to the story. What does she point out fairly early on when she is planting the minari? Jacob is about to throw a rock at a snake, and she tells him, no, don't, then it'll run and hide--it's better if things are out in the open than hidden. Practically yes, it's less dangerous if you know where the snake is; this way you won't accidentally put your hand or foot near it and startle it and get bitten. Symbolically, though, you could carry this concept over to the family. They seem like a pretty good family. But there is something hidden in them that you discover over the course of the film. Soon-ja weeps at the prayer Monica tells to David; she sees that it brings him only fear, not strength. She pleads with Jacob not to strike David in punishment for a prank that she was the victim of. Soon-ja sees what goes in in their relationships.
And so, symbolically once again, it is Soon-ja's gift that father and son are harvesting at the end. The minari is the provision of the grandmother. It is a bit of culture she brought with her from Korea. While Jacob and Monica were busy worrying about work and health, Soon-ja was planting seeds. She brought the focus back onto the family in cultivating a relationship with her grandson, even when he seemed oft reluctant. And so in the end, after Soon-ja inadvertently starts the fire that burns Jacob's harvest, the family is left with nothing but the legacy of the grandmother. Jacob sees that it is good. And so by seeing him harvesting the minari with David at the end, we are to understand that now it is more important to him to cultivate a relationship with his son (and the rest of his family) and to plant seeds in him than to build up grand dreams.
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