Minari: Ending Explained (In Detail)

Do the Yis return to California at the end of ‘Minari’? What happens in the aftermath of the fire?
Minari: Ending Explained (In Detail)

Lee Isaac Chung, the director of films like Munyurangabo (2006) and Abigail Harm (2012), ventured into his own memory and experiences to construct Minari (2020), also contributing to the expanding canon of Asian immigrant stories that were being produced in the United States in the late 2010s. Films like Crazy Rich Asians (Jon M. Chu, 2018) and The Farewell (Lulu Wang, 2019) served as immediate precursors, but what stood out about Chung’s film was how it broke away from the stereotypical American binary understanding of Eastern Asians being either Chinese or Japanese through its portrayal of South Korean characters.

Arrival in Arkansas

The year is 1983, and the Yi family have just left California for Arkansas, where Jacob (Steven Yeun) is hopeful of growing Korean crops to sell to vendors in Dallas. Jacob embodies the optimism that is natural to an immigrant, deciding against a water diviner in preference of a well that he digs himself, certain that his young family will make a go of things in their new home.

His wife Monica (Han Ye-ri) is not as sure of the future as him: The situation hardly seems ideal, and their son David (Alan Kim) has a heart condition that restricts him from indulging in strenuous physical activity. David and his sister Anne (Noel Kate Cho) are in the know about their parents’ disagreements over the move and the life that the family will build in Arkansas, eavesdropping on the couple as they work in the hatchery.

Given the extensive work that needs to be done in order to make life in Arkansas a success, the couple agree on having Monica’s mother Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung) come over to look after the children. David, forced to share a room with a grandmother he doesn’t deem sufficiently grandmotherly, is initially unwilling to make an attempt to bond with Soon-ja, but she quickly wins him and Anne over.

Even with the children looked after, the family’s troubles grow rather than reduce. Jacob’s well runs dry and he is forced to pay for public utilities that will ensure sufficient supply, and an order he has received from a Dallas vendor is suddenly cancelled at the last minute. Despite Monica’s misgivings and entreaties that they return to California, he decides to keep going, damaging their relationship further.

The Seeds of a New Life

Acting on Soon-ja’s advice, David plants minari (water celery) seeds by the creek. She teaches him about its sturdy, tough properties and predicts that the family will soon prosper. This, compounded by the card game she has taught him, her attention towards his general wellbeing, and especially her encouragement in exerting his physical being, something his parents are dead set against, brings David closer to his grandmother. Soon-ja suggests that the boy is stronger than his parents believe, and pushes him to put his organs to the test. Just as David starts to flourish and things appear to be improving for the family, Soon-ja has a stroke that leaves her movement and speech impaired. It’s as though she struck a bargain: Her health for the family’s success.

On a trip to Oklahoma City to see David’s doctor, Jacob lets on to Monica that he cares more about the success of the crops he has planted than his family’s well-being, and despite David’s heart condition having improved and an agreement being reached between a grocer and Jacob, the couple decide to separate.

Flames and Ashes

In the time that the family was away, Soon-ja accidentally sets the barn on fire. Upon arriving on the scene, Jacob rushes into the burning building to save the crops stored inside, and Monica rushes after him in the hope of saving him from any harm. While they are able to salvage some of the produce, they ultimately help each other escape the flames, thus defeating Jacob’s line of argument totally — when it finally came down to it, he chose to place his wife above the crops.

As the barn burns down, Soon-ja, dazed and out-of-sorts, wanders off by herself. David chases after her when she doesn’t respond to his and Anne’s shouts. He blocks Soon-ja’s way and a look of recognition comes over her face. She gives him her hand and allows herself to be taken back to the house, where the family falls asleep on the floor out of the physical and mental toll of the fire. Soon-ja watches them serenely as they sleep, as though she were a guardian figure looking after them.

Minari ends with Jacob and Monica deciding on a location for the new well, which is marked with a stone. He then takes David down to the creek, where they harvest the minari, a plant that is said to die in its first season and regrow in the second to a far superior standard.

The ending does not clarify whether or not Soon-ja lived, and that is incidental to the film itself. Soon-ja’s whole existence within the film’s narrative revolved around proving herself to be a member of the family who contributed in one way or another, and she ultimately did, by bringing the squabbling couple back together and by planting the minari.

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