Soon-ja could’ve taken offense at his insults, but she laughs them off. She is amused by his antics and gives him leeway to become accustomed to her. Even after an incident when David intentionally serves her a disgusting drink to retaliate against the pungent medicine she brews for him daily, she can’t bear to see him punished. “Who cares if I drank it?” she tells Jacob, who is preparing to discipline the child. “It was fun!”
David is too young to understand that Soon-ja survived by herself in Korea. Widowed at an early age and with no son to take care of her, she provided for herself. And yet when she arrived in the U.S., she gave all her savings to Monica, who is embarrassed that she hasn’t been able to help her mother financially.
This has been a long-brewing source of contention for the Yis. They worked long hours in factories, but have no savings to show for it — not because they didn’t have money to put aside, but because Jacob sent it all to his parents. None of it was sent to Monica’s mother or put aside for their children. “I’m the oldest son!” he tells her. “I have no choice.”
Monica’s frustration and anger is visible. But there’s not much she can say, because Korean women of her era knew going into marriage that it’s an eldest son’s duty to provide for his aging parents, even at his own nuclear family’s expense. I saw this occur in my own family. But where my mother differed from Monica is that she took charge of our finances, fulfilling my father’s duties as the eldest son while ensuring that there would be money saved for our college education.
As with many dreams before they are fulfilled, the Yi family live through nightmares that at times seem insurmountable. In an attempt to save money, Jacob dug his own well for his farm. When it dried up, he connected the crop irrigation to his home, which left the family with no water. Even when it’s obvious what has happened, he doesn’t confide in his wife.
Having survived much worse conditions during the Korean War, Soon-ja views this as a minor inconvenience. She takes David to the riverbank where they had planted minari – a Korean vegetable that flourishes with little fuss – and brings home buckets of water for the family to boil and use.
Earlier, she had told David and Anne not to scare away snakes at the riverbank, because they can be more dangerous to humans when they’re hidden from view. This is a recurring theme in Minari, with Jacob and Monica hiding their fears from one another, thinking it’s for the best to pretend they are unaware of what’s going on.
Chung is an astute filmmaker, who pays close attention to the smallest details. He has created a universally relatable film, while inserting elements that are specifically Korean. For instance, we never hear the parents use their Korean names. They introduce themselves as Jacob and Monica to the white congregation at church. But at home, they refer to each other as their children’s mother or father, as is customary for Koreans. Occasionally, they use yeobo — a Korean word that has morphed into a term of endearment between couples, but is an abbreviation for look here — which implies they are talking to a person who they take for granted will always be there for them.
Like most children, David and Anne are like the minari Soon-ja planted. They adapt well to their new surroundings without overthinking it. They’re friendly with the town’s religious outcast, because he works for their dad. They acclimate to Soon-ja, because they have to. They live where they live, because it’s where their parents chose.