Matters of the Heart: What Minari Means to Me

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Matters of the Heart: What <i>Minari</i> Means to Me

“Even the doctors are worried,” young David (Alan S. Kim) overhears his mother Monica (Yeri Han) tell his grandmother Soonja (Youn Yuh-Jung) one sunny afternoon. “His heart could stop at any moment.”

Her voice, low with concern, carries through the open window of their mobile home to where this seven-year-old boy stands outside, soaking in daylight. His face falls just a little as he struggles to make sense of what he’s heard. Later, David tells his grandmother, “I don’t want to die,” and she holds him close.

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When I first watched Minari, now more than a year ago at Sundance, I carried the feelings it stirred in me out of the theater, clasped to my chest, believing I’d never put them down. It broke my heart, I wrote at the time, only to piece it back together stronger than before. You get that sense, sometimes, of knowing a great film when you see one—but it’s much rarer to feel that a great film knows you back, and knows you deeply. That kind of recognition matters. It helps you make sense of all your pieces, and you hold it up like a mirror in hopes of finally finding the ones that went missing some time ago.

The “universality” of writer-director Lee Isaac Chung’s acclaimed feature, which explicitly draws from his experience growing up as a Korean immigrant in 1980s Arkansas, means something different to everyone who describes it that way. For some, the film’s portrait of an immigrant family assimilating into the American heartland hits particularly close to home; others look at its characters in all their idiosyncrasies and see much that reminds of their own fathers and mothers. It’s through the film’s specificities that Minari depicts a family like any and no other. And it’s through preserving memories of love, heartbreak and sacrifice—even the ones he was too young to comprehend—that Chung’s excavation of his own childhood hits on achingly resonant truths about the fluid, formative essence of family.

For me, Minari most personally evokes my memories of loving a child with a congenital heart defect—a child like David, or like my youngest sister, Tabitha, whose tenuous health offered reasons to fear the worst, and whose sense of lightness kept that fear at bay more often than not. I know well the adoration with which Chung (who himself had a heart murmur as a child) draws David out of the past, with his irrepressible curiosity, too-big cowboy boots and mischievous streak. When I picture my sister, I first see her smile, then hear her laughter—still as clear and melodic as birdsong through the halls of our home. I remember the way oversized sunglasses often sat atop her curly head of hair, and how she would dot the i in her name with a heart. It’s through remembering Tabitha, as Chung remembers David, that Minari comes into focus for me as a film about the fleeting and exquisitely ephemeral nature of childhood, and how precarious that innocence always was.

Like David, like Tabitha, like many beautiful things, Minari feels too precious for this world, as if its sun-dappled recollection of childhood will at any moment flicker out, turn back to dust or unravel into disaster. Emile Mosseri’s gossamer score suggests a heartbeat, morning light through dark-green veins and the quiet stirrings of life in the landscape. Delicate piano, detuned guitar and a swirl of woodwinds situate the film within an almost Edenic evocation of its setting, teeming with small wonders. Lachlan Milne’s soft, still-life cinematography only heightens this poetic quality, and Chung favors static shots that feel observed through a wistful patina. Through these techniques, Minari becomes a memory play, amorphous as any recollection of youth. It is less about what happened than about the truth of what it meant. It honors the transience of younger years, the way time slips through your fingers, years elapsed before you’re done living out a day. Minari imbues its vignettes with appreciative longing. It provides glimpses—nothing more—that, in David’s recollection, seem to flow on forever.

Minari takes its name from the flavorful, bitter Korean watercress that Soonja teaches David how to grow by the forest creek. Once planted, it is known for its ability to thrive even in unfamiliar surroundings, a lovely metaphor for both the immigrant experience and David’s own indomitable spirit. The film itself is accurately described as bittersweet. Its depiction of innocence coexisting with struggle maps painful realities back over Chung’s recollections, lining joy with sorrow. I look back now on my happy childhood, and I mourn that memory as if it died. Often, I think it did. Occasionally, I ask my parents about something that happened to us—even about the tenor of it—and we invariably disagree on the particulars of this vivid moment I feel has shaped me. “Love is more thicker than forget,” wrote e e cummings. “More thinner than recall.”

Hoping for miracles, braving the anxiety of their everyday, wondering if they’re too far from the hospital, the Yi family nurtures David with a balance of love, care and faith—albeit one that each member strikes differently. His father Jacob (Steven Yeun) lavishes devotions on his crops, but he greets his son with a tougher love. Working at a chicken sexing plant, Jacob explains the discarding of male chicks by saying that these little birds, like men, are either useful or useless. Though David is too young to understand, Jacob struggles with the idea that his son’s heart defect might render him less capable of performing physical labor; the moments in which father and son bond have much to do with their shared appreciation for the land and all it can provide.

Monica, conversely, guides David with a gentle hand, constantly taking his blood pressure, calling “Don’t run!” over her shoulder. (He does everything short of that, fast-walking, stomping and waddling around the land as quickly as his little legs will carry him.) Expressing love through concern, Monica opposes the family’s new dwellings as hazardous to David’s health and assures him they’ll move closer to a hospital. Worry lines her face and, when she prays, it’s an expression of pain—casting a pall of existential dread over David’s childhood idyll. Monica’s embrace of spirituality brings him no comfort. When she tells David to pray to see Heaven and awaken healed, he resists. Too young to make sense of his own fragility, he instead grows terribly afraid.

Monica resents that she is living a life she did not fully choose, but it strikes me the same is true for all of us who sacrifice for our families’ health. It’s certainly true for David’s sister Anne (Noel Kate Cho), first on neither her parents’ nor brother’s minds, even in hindsight. Still, she navigates their strife with self-sufficiency and quiet strength, whether keeping her brother occupied with paper planes when their parents argue (“Don’t fight,” they scrawl in crayon along one wing) or patiently explaining to David what the outcomes of those arguments might mean for them. Such is the mantle of the older sibling.

But it’s David’s grandmother, Soonja, who identifies another kind of nurture he needs: One that accepts this child fully while reminding him of his innate resilience. It’s Soonja who teaches David how to grow minari in the creek, a more tender process than Jacob’s fruits and vegetables; it’s Soonja who instructs him to haul buckets back to the house once the water stops running. “Strong boy,” she calls him, to his surprise. “No one’s ever said that to you?” Soonja asks. “David, you’re a strong boy. You’re the strongest boy Grandma’s ever seen.” But this dynamic does not overextend David, and Soonja’s comforting words the night he confesses his fear of dying—such an unknowable concept to us all, but especially to children—matter deeply. Soonja cannot ensure David’s health, but she laments a world that would intrude on his happiness. With the wisdom of her years, she knows David’s innocence is too precious to threaten, no matter the hardships he’ll face.

My sister visited hospitals throughout her childhood, where doctors performed echocardiograms to monitor her heart. What I remember most about those visits is how much she despised the cold, viscous feel of the gel they’d apply to her chest. It made her feel different, reminded her of the perils posed by the heart with which she loved her friends and family so abundantly. At home, Tabitha was never treated differently and she delighted in racing around, keeping pace with me and our other sister Celia as all three of us ducked branches and hopped streams in the woods behind our house. It sounds funny in hindsight, but she was someone who literally sang and danced her way through life, in choirs and troupes, on tables and chairs. That kind of vitality came naturally to her. She seemed not to know another way to live. I believe she was the strongest person I’ll ever know.

After David plays a prank on Soonja, his initially jubilant escape into the nearby forest—giggling, arms swinging at his sides, chubby legs striding fast—is clouded by the sounds of his exertion: First, David struggles to catch his breath, then we hear the sounds of his heartbeat, as if through his mother’s stethoscope. Chung’s camera, which had been trailing the little rascal from behind, circles around in front of him and shifts into close-up as the boy puts one hand over his heart, panting. Chung’s direction leaves us split in this moment between David’s perspective and that of his protectors—the latter now including us, who’ve come to adore him. As we feel his uncertainty mounting, it’s impossible to untangle it from our own sense of dread.

But of course, David catches his breath. The alternative would be unfathomable: This little boy collapsing, the flame of his heart extinguished, life departing his tiny frame there and then. How many times have David’s parents feared this outcome? How many times will David? I can’t count the number of times I remember glancing anxiously behind me while walking in the woods, seeing Tabitha struggle to keep up. Sometimes, I’d fall back and offer to carry her on my shoulders, making light of a fatigue I’m not sure either of us fully registered as alarming.

In the last years of my sister’s life, as she underwent two open-heart surgeries and was outfitted with a bioprosthetic valve, I started to dream that I was running through a forest, someplace ancient, toward a clearing where I knew I’d find her. I would invariably feel that something was terribly wrong. And, peering into the dark, I’d sense some animal in there too, a fearsome thing, all teeth and claws. My family wouldn’t know. I had to warn them. Sometimes, I’d get as far as the edge of the clearing; often, I’d see the indistinct faces of my parents, of my sisters, turning to welcome me. Always, as I tried to tell them of the danger, I’d instead feel claws dig into my back, and that thing would drag me back the way I’d come.

Looking back, I think about the weight I carried as an eldest son and older brother, the helplessness I felt to protect my little sister as doctors struggled to do the same. I thought about that watching Anne, the vigilant way she tends to David as they play in the fields, the hand she outstretches whenever he looks unsteady. Anne even offers her mother reassurance. “My daughter’s so grown-up, worrying about her mom,” says Monica. “Always looking after her brother, too. I’m sorry.” It’s this apology that always hits me hardest, that tacit acknowledgment from mother to daughter that Anne has shouldered more than she should have to carry.

Minari gets all this painfully, extraordinarily right. Watching it for the first time, I felt breathless with anxiety. I found myself praying for David. I knew what a rare and gorgeous thing his survival would be. I’ve stood where Anne stands, looking on with adoration and unease. This is David’s story, and Anne lingers by its edges, often quiet but not absent.

I wonder what she dreamed about.

My little sister died eight years ago next month. She was 13. The doctors were shocked, and our family will never be whole again. The details of Tabitha’s death are complicated and painful, but not to her; she passed in her sleep one night after feeling weary the previous day. Her heart skipped a beat sometime between midnight and 1 AM and, weakened by what we later learned was the valve malfunctioning, could not restart. It’s true what they say about grief, how it mutes the colors you see and casts all that came before in a warm glow. Loss dulls you and makes you long for a time when the world seemed to bloom instead of wilt. I take every chance I get to live in my childhood memories. They’re perfect, even the ones that make me cry.

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A long-dreaded doctor’s appointment opens Minari’s third act, and it is a more pivotal event for David’s parents than for him. Monica hears the murmur getting louder and fears the worst, telling her husband she plans to return to the city with the kids. Watching them play in the hospital hallway, her face flits between sadness, guilt and hardening resolve. She tells Jacob they must leave the farm before it drives them into debt, making it harder to afford the surgery David may eventually need. He tells her to go.

Inside the doctor’s office, however, they receive good news: The hole in David’s heart is growing smaller, and with it the risk to his life. “Must be the Ozark water,” says the doctor, with a blithe smile. “Whatever it is you’re doing, don’t change a thing.”

But the bittersweet truth of Minari is in its promise that things will change, as inevitably as the sun rises and sets over their little patch of Arkansas. To pretend otherwise helps no one. Soonja suffers a stroke and David knows she’s not the same, that their shared days of reverie are already past. From her deterioration will arise new troubles. A doctor’s opinion may be reasoned, but it’s far from a guarantee, and it can’t account for the way life will happen to you. This truth lends credence to Monica’s frustration with Jacob, which boils over once they leave the hospital. “Things might be fine now,” she says, “but I don’t think they will stay that way. I know this won’t end well, and I can’t bear it.”

Still, Minari has the decency not to shatter our hearts outright. Back at the farm, Jacob cannot save his crops from a tragic fire, but he cradles his wife with the revelation that he has not yet lost the love that matters more. Choosing one another, the Yi family makes it through this night. Later, David leads his father into the forest, to show him the minari flourishing where he and his grandmother had seeded it. From this modest harvest, perhaps, they’ll glean some sustenance; but it’s through each other that they’ll find a way forward.

Minari draws a profound melancholy from its sense that as many hardships lie ahead for its characters as the ones they’ve already endured. What the film offers is not the assurance of a happy ending, a suggestion Jacob’s American dream will eventually come true or even the confidence that David’s health will continue to improve. Instead, Minari concludes with the image of a family reconciling, grateful for whatever time they have remaining. Nothing is promised, and Chung knows this. Minari’s characters exist only within the confines of his scenes, drawn from vivid flashes of his youth. Outside of that, they’re long since lost, or at least not as they were. Minari is a work of love in that it’s an act of remembrance. It does not resurrect the past with lachrymose sentimentality, but memorialize it with the gracious clarity of hindsight.

Tabitha’s loss still shadows my family, in the empty chair at our kitchen table and the notches on our wall where us children marked our growth. I feel her absence like a bruise upon my soul. But I still have two sisters, my parents three children. And I have my memories. In Minari, Chung speaks a language of the heart, one that’s come closest to mending mine. It’s a wonderful language: One through which, whatever comes, a summer’s day spent in the long grass with someone you love can mean more than you’ll know—until you realize, looking back, it’s the only time you had. It’s all that ever mattered.


Isaac Feldberg is an entertainment journalist currently based in Boston, who’s been writing professionally for seven years and hopes to stay at it for a few years more. Frequently over-excited and under-caffeinated, he sits down to surf the Criterion Channel but ends up, inevitably, on Shudder. You can find him on Twitter at @isaacfeldberg.

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