May 9, 2021, 6:00 a.m.
Lee Isaac Chung’s film Minari received praise and an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for its nuanced and moving portrayal of the Korean-American Yi family settlement in rural Arkansas. While most of the reviewers understandably focused on race, one of the main themes in the film is the Yi family’s relationship with Christianity. The film’s focus on the Korean-American family’s relationship with the Church is not surprising: Christianity is deeply intertwined with modern Korean history, and particularly with the relationship of Koreans with the United States. The Christian faith was an important channel through which Koreans negotiated modernity and connected personally and ideologically with the United States.
Throughout the film, Minari reveals Koreans’ complex relationship with the Church. The first meaningful friendship the Yi family forges with a local is with farm laborer Paul (played by Will Patton), who – clumsily but sincere – bonds with the family with his unusual Christian beliefs, exorcism and wearing one large wooden cross includes on weekends. A crucial moment in the narrative arc is when Patriarch Jacob (played by Steven Yeun) gives in to the insistence of his wife Monica (played by Han Ye-ri) and agrees to attend the local church. The predominantly white Arkansas community stumbles as it tries to welcome the Yi family, whose good intentions have been poorly executed by the lack of awareness of the new Korean immigrants. However, the Yi family, particularly their young son David (played by Alan Kim), manage to bond with members of the local Arkansas community.
The film’s deep connection with Christianity reflects Korea’s relationship with the faith – and the way it served as the country’s bridge to the United States. A significant proportion of Koreans are Christians, which is unusual for East Asia. According to a November 2020 survey by Hankook Research, 28 percent of all South Koreans are Christians: 20 percent are Protestants and 8 percent are Catholics. (In comparison, only 1.5 percent of the Japanese population are Christians; in China 2.5 percent; in Taiwan 3.9 percent.) With 16 percent, Christians are the largest religious group in the country, even larger than Buddhism, if Even with a small majority of people, in surveys, they profess “no religion” (but often still follow some religious practices). Christians in South Korea exert an overwhelming influence in terms of their numbers, as Christians are more common among South Korean elites. For example, of the seven South Korean presidents in the democratic era (since 1987), five were Christians: Roh Tae-woo, Kim Young-sam, and Lee Myung-bak were Protestants, while Kim Dae-jung and the current President Moon Jae-in were and are Catholics.
South Korea is a rare Asian country whose Christian origins do not lie in missionary work. Instead, the Koreans converted. In the 18th century, it became popular for Korean intellectuals to study Seohak (or “Western Learning”) and European theories of astronomy, science and philosophy, including the study of the Bible. South Korea’s first Christians were essentially converted after reading and studying the Bible and organizing house churches. The Catholic Church in Korea dates back to 1784, when Yi Seung-hun was the first Korean to be baptized when he traveled to Beijing to be formally baptized by a French Jesuit missionary. Korea’s first Christians to reject traditional Confucian rituals were severely persecuted by the Joseon Dynasty, which killed tens of thousands in the 18th century. Nevertheless, Christianity continued to grow and prevail in Korea, especially as a symbol of modernity.
Although the impetus for first conversion came from the Koreans themselves, Christian missionaries from the United States were important actors in the marriage of modernity and Christianity as they helped establish many of Korea’s early modern institutions. The so-called “medical missionary work” was very effective as everywhere. For example, the American Presbyterian missionary Horace Allen founded Gwanghyewon, Korea’s first modern hospital, in 1885. Today the hospital is Severance Hospital, named after US oil magnate Louis Severance, who donated money to one of South Korea’s leading hospitals. The hospital is part of Yonsei University, which was also founded by the US missionary Horace Underwood.
Christian influence permeated the Korean elite. Mary Scranton, a Methodist missionary from Ohio, founded Ewha Womans University in 1886. As Korea’s first educational institution for women, Ewha was responsible for creating numerous women’s premieres in Korea, including Korea’s first female doctor, Esther Park, who became a doctor in 1900, or Korea’s first female lawyer, Lee Tae-yeong, who left the law firm in 1952. US missionary Lemuel Nelson Bell is credited with introducing Kim Il-sung’s parents as Kim Hyong-jik and Kang Pan-sok – Kim’s father and mother – were devout Christians in Pyongyang, Korea’s most Christian area of the early 20th century, to what it called the “Jerusalem of the East”. (Bell’s daughter Ruth later married U.S. evangelist Billy Graham, who visited North Korea twice and held his biggest revival in Seoul in 1973.)
After Korea became independent from Imperial Japan and South Korea entered the US’s sphere of interest, South Korean Christians – especially evangelicals – became a vital link that shaped South Korea’s relations with the United States. The first President of South Korea was Syngman Rhee, who appealed much of his Methodist faith to US officials, where he was exiled during the colonial era. (Syngman converted to Christianity when he attended the Pai Chai School founded by US missionary Henry Appenzeller.) Under Syngman, the first meeting of the South Korean legislature opened on May 31, 1948 with a Christian prayer. Syngman began his first address as the first chairman of the National Assembly: “We are gathered today to inaugurate the first National Assembly of our republic. Today we owe first to the grace of God, second to the blood and sacrifice of our patriotic ancestors, and third to the support of the United States and the United Nations. “
After the Korean War, the US Protestant churches were important sources of assistance for South Korea. From July 1950 to November 1952, the various Christian organizations in the United States were responsible for 44 percent of all relief supplies destined for South Korea. The aid was distributed through Christian churches and organizations in South Korea, which further expanded the influence of the church. For example, Moon recalled converting to Catholicism as a North Korean refugee child in Busan when he stood in the neighborhood church every day with a bucket to get food from the nuns.
The Christian alliance also opened an important route for Korean immigration to the United States: international adoption of war orphans, which evolved into a system that made South Korea the leading source of outbound international adoption by the early 2000s. More than 110,000 Korean children were placed in the United States, mostly in white Christian families, as recorded in Arissa Oh’s 2015 book, Saving the Children of Korea: The Origins of International Adoption in the Cold War.
As the churches in South Korea and the United States evolved, so did the Korean-American churches. In both South Korea and the United States, the number of Christians has declined over time. This shrinking is being felt in Korean-American churches as they lament the “silent exodus” of second and third generation Korean Americans. The sharp conservative turn in US evangelism since the early 1980s, which has accelerated in recent years, has hit the Korean-American churches, driving out more liberal Korean Americans, and radicalizing many of those who remain in the church.
Although the churches have played a significant role in the democracy movement today, the conservative mega-churches in South Korea are the source of right-wing extremist politics and hold rallies in Seoul’s plaza where the flags of the United States and South Korea are waved together. The close connection of these Korean mega-churches with Korean-American churches as well as with Protestant mega-churches in the USA often serves as a conduit for US conspiracy theories like QAnon to get to South Korea.
Minari’s cast and crew reflect this complex relationship between Korea and the United States through Christianity. Almost every significant Korean or Korean American involved in Minari is affiliated with the Church. The director is the son of a pastor who founded his own church in rural Arkansas. Oscar winner Youn Yuh-jung, who lives in South Korea, was living in the United States for 13 years when her then-husband, a pop singer, was invited to a Billy Graham revival. Both the main characters in the film, Steven Yeun and Han Ye-ri, are Christians, with Yeun alluding to his character Jacob, like his biblical namesake “a man who wrestles with God”.
Through this deep familiarity with Korean-American Christianity, the film provides a nuanced representation of what the church means to Korean-Americans. One of Minari’s most catchy moments is when Monica asks her Korean-American colleague on a chicken farm, Ms. Oh (played by Esther Moon), why the handful of Korean-Americans in the area didn’t start a church. Ms. Oh replies politely and firmly: The Korean Americans who come all the way to Arkansas are the ones who are moving away from the Korean churches.