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Society’s expectations for the elderly are starkly defined in terms of ‘acceptable behaviour’ for their age. However, in Minari, Grandma Soon-ja breaks those stereotypes, and how!
Recently I watched Minari, an American film which follows the story of an immigrant South-Korean family that moves from urban to rural America in the 1980s in search of a better life. Beyond the endearing story of the uprooted young family with their adorable children and its beautiful landscapes – one character stood out, making the entire movie more enjoyable. That is Grandma Soon-ja, who emerges as a stunning package of contradictions, and surprises the family and the audience throughout the movie.
The 74 year old Korean actress Youn Yuh-jung who played delightful grandmother Soon-ja became the first Korean to win an Academy award for acting. It is no wonder that she went on to win more awards for playing this role, because the character was written meaningfully to be thought-provoking as well as amusing.
Old age is traditionally perceived as life after retirement, a stage where the individual becomes dependent on the next-generation or in some cases, takes up the role of being a baby-sitter. Society’s expectations for the elderly, and grandparents in particular, are starkly defined with clear boundaries of ‘acceptable behaviour’ for this age. However, in Minari, Soon-ja breaks those stereotypes and still manages to score as an ideal grandmother.
Grandparents are usually portrayed with a standard template – old, frail, needing attention and at times cranky without reason. From the very first frame, Soon-ja breaks every rule with her unpretentious mannerisms and timely sense of humour.
When her daughter laments their current life on a trailer, Soon-ja casually says, “Because the house has wheels? It’s fun!”. When David, her grandson, takes time to warm up to her, she doesn’t try too hard. Sans regret, she admits that she doesn’t know how to cook or bake cookies – a standing ovation for that mighty confidence!
Soon-ja teaches the kids to play cards, swears loudly, steals from the church charity collection, takes them on little adventures and breathes excitement into their lives in every possible way. When David confronts her and says, “You are not a real Grandma”, she playfully kicks him and gets back to watching her wrestling show.
Women are expected to adapt to certain templates at different life stages, but Soon-ja is solid and clear that she doesn’t fit that framework. Yes, she is here to help the family raise the children, but she isn’t going to give up her spunk to adapt to rural Arkansas. We realize there is no such thing as a “real grandmother”, because every grandmother is perfect in her own way.
Pranks form the foundation of the relationship between children and grandparents, who love being victims and letting the little ones have their moment of glory. My favourite childhood prank with my grandmother was using the backup TV remote to change channels when she was diligently watching her daily soaps. It was hilarious to notice her puzzled expression while she frantically searched for her own remote, and finally looked for the culprit. I started doing this when I was probably 10 and continued till I was in college visiting her over the weekends. But she never changed, always calling out my nickname with a little smile – that prank was our ritual!
Soon-ja falls for a nasty little prank by David but is more than happy to forgive him quickly and even defends him before his parents. Yet, she is not a passive victim – in reality, she is a strong rival when the chance offers itself! She never hesitates to rib David for his bed-wetting troubles or call him ‘Pretty boy’ which totally annoys him. David has probably inherited some of her mischievous traits and she welcomes that notorious streak in him with open arms. Together they created a few magical moments which left me chuckling while reminiscing about the time spent with my grandparents.
Grandparents have a definitive impact on the upbringing of the children and at times silently overtake the parents in bringing out the best in them. Soon-ja is instrumental in David’s journey of overcoming the mental block that kept him from experiencing a complete childhood. When she calls him ‘Strong boy’, he is astonished, for nobody has ever said that to him before! According to her, David is perfect as he is and she gives him the much-needed nudge to live life to the fullest.
My most favourite trait in Soon-ja is letting things evolve without rushing to solve them. Understanding the strained relationship of the young couple, she steers clear from taking sides or trying to ease the rising tension between them. Instead she does her bit for the family, and enjoys spending time with her grandchildren while hoping that her minari plants grow in the new haven she has located. She cleverly drops the odd pearl of wisdom when the couple’s favourite song plays on TV, gently letting them remember the good times spent together.
Beyond her actions, Soon-ja’s spirit of adaptability is the strongest in comparison to the other characters. She is in a new country and doesn’t know the language or customs, but brings an air of calmness which keeps her grounded, unlike her daughter who is constantly fretting over the future. It stems from the fact that she enjoys living the day rather than worrying about tomorrow. She even tells her daughter, “Don’t work too hard”, reminding her to pause and experience life which is a lesson often forgotten amidst the rush hour of one’s youthful years.
In the Indian context, while grandparents bring wisdom and experience to the young generation, they are usually constrained with ‘age-appropriate’ invisible guardrails which society has created for them. While they may be willing to help in every possible way, we need to recognize that they can be themselves while they are grandparents. Last year, there was an adorable incident where two kids dressed up in dinosaur costumes to welcome their grandmother at a Canadian airport. But Grandma just swooped in and took the cake when she walked out of the airport in a dinosaur costume herself!
There might be a little bit of Soon-ja in everyone, wise in years, but childlike in spirit and setting their own definitions of being a grandparent.
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