Grace That Grows Like Minari

A Parable of the Tilled Field and Weeds

Kate Campbell / 4.28.21

Spoilers ahead for Minari.

I’ve never had a garden, but I’ve always admired people who grew their own vegetables. It’s one thing to plant some daisies in your yard, and another entirely to tend to and cultivate a whole garden of produce. To be honest, I’d rather skip the whole charade and just buy my squash at the grocery store, but the avid growers say that their homegrown squash tastes different. I’d say that they are tasting their own hard work, sown into the soil with sweat and love and care. A garden is a veritable playground for people who love to see the literal fruit of their toil.

I recently saw the Oscar-nominated film Minari, in which a Korean-American family settles in the farmlands of Arkansas, led by patriarch Jacob. Fueled by tenacious hope and the American dream, Jacob desires to have a thriving farm, to provide for his family, and ultimately to prove his worth — to himself, his family, and the world. 

Played poignantly by Steven Yeun, Jacob’s character is aptly named: his determination to succeed is reminiscent of the stubbornness of his Biblical namesake, Jacob. Both men wrestle for a blessing, but rather than wrestle with God, the Jacob of Minari wrestles with the physical land — and with his own internal fear of failure. 

I can relate to Jacob. I recently started a new job, and honestly, I’m not entirely sure how I got hired for the position. I don’t have the experience or qualifications for the job, but somehow my boss saw potential in me. I’ve always been naturally good at things, and I figured I could be good at this job, too. But a few weeks ago, I realized I have no idea what I’m doing. And I’m completely afraid of failing. 

My instinct, like Jacob, is to toil. To work hard, to sow seeds, and to make things grow. And it’s not just about providing; it’s about proving. In a moment of vulnerability, Jacob tells his wife Monica, “[Our kids] need to see me succeed at something for once.” Jacob is desperate to prove himself, and he labors the land for literal evidence of his efforts. But this film reminded me that it’s not my own work that saves me; it’s the grace that grows like minari that will save me. 

Minari, also known as water celery, is an edible plant native to east Asia. In the film, Monica’s mother, Grandma Soonja, arrives from Korea, bearing minari seeds and other Korean culinary staples. Though it doesn’t become clear until the end, minari plays a huge part in this small family’s life on the farm.

Grandma Soonja, played by the lovely Yuh-Jung You, is a true delight in this film. Her crass nature, foreign smell, and strange humor make her grandson David question whether she’s a “real grandma,” but by the end of the film, they have formed a loving bond. On one of their adventures to the creek in the woods behind their farm, Soonja plants the minari seeds she brought from Korea. She declares to young David, “Minari is truly the best. It grows anywhere, like weeds. So anyone can pick and eat it. 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!”

The minari continues to grow beside the creek, silently and abundantly, throughout the film, demanding little attention but flourishing nonetheless. The small stream near it comes to be called the “minari creek,” and the family becomes dependent on it — at one point, their water is shut off, and David and his older sister Anne haul buckets of water from the creek for the family to use for washing and cooking. 

All the while, Jacob continues to toil, trying desperately to save their crop from drought and, in the film’s devastating climactic scene, from fire. Returning from a trip to the city, the Yi family arrives to see their barn ablaze. Jacob runs into the burning barn, trying desperately to save the vegetables for which he has labored. Despite Monica’s bitterness toward her husband and his dream, she plunges into the smoky building alongside him. In the end, they emerge empty-handed from the collapsing building, and watch as their crop — their only source of hope — is reduced to ashes.

With their crop gone, I wondered what would save this family from complete starvation. I sometimes have the same feeling at my new job — without my skills to save me from failure, what is left to keep me afloat, to prove my worth? Then I remember: the minari growing faithfully beside the creek.

In the final scene, David and Jacob journey out to the creek together with a bucket. It’s the first time Jacob has even visited the minari creek, the very place sustaining his family, and the significance of that was not lost on me. Ironically, minari is the one plant that Jacob himself did not plant or tend, yet it’s the very thing that saves him.

Everything that the minari represents in this film can be summed up in a word: grace

And I’ve learned that, like minari, grace grows wherever it’s planted. Grace is there for anyone to enjoy — rich or poor, it nourishes your soul. No wonder Soonja sings, “Wonderful, wonderful!” I’ve never tried minari, but I suppose I may need to — I want to see what grace tastes like.