HomeKorean AmericanActor Steven Yeun brought to tears talking about Minari

Actor Steven Yeun brought to tears talking about Minari

Steven Yeun in Minari. A24 Photo

By Jana Monji, AsAmNews Art & Culture Writer

During one of my May sojourns, I crossed a changing landscape, going from worrying about traffic jams in Los Angeles to worrying about having enough water in a two-hour traffic jam in Texas to worrying about my car being waterlogged in Arkansas. Cities and signs became scarce. Arkansas was green and it seems as if some front yards ended at the freeway. What a change from Los Angeles where signs are plentiful and wide open spaces scarce.

Minari is about a Korean American family who traveled from Los Angeles to settle in Arkansas in pursuit of a better life. The film has garnered awards, beginning with the Dramatic Competition Grand Prize at the Sundance Film Festival where it premiered.  It has elicited tears by audience and cast members. After a special screening in honor of Korean American Day (13 January 2021), producer Sandra Oh led a conversation with writer/director Lee Isaac Chung and cast members during which both Oh and Steven Yeun were reduced to tears. Yeun said, in making this film he felt “a deep reconnection to my childhood.”

Minari

Inspired by writer/director Lee Isaac Chung’s childhood memories, Minari begins as the Yi family arrives at a green pasture where the wife Monica (Han Ye-ri) disappointedly finds their new house is a trailer home set on cinder blocks. No steps have been built; that will come later. The husband, Jacob (Steven Yeun), presents this to their kids as a new adventure. How cool! The house is on wheels. Seeing his wife’s face, Jacob reacts, “Don’t be like that. Come inside.”

Monica reminds him, “This isn’t what you promised.” Then her motherly instinct takes over: “David, don’t run.” David (Alan Kim) is the youngest child and has health issues. While unpacking, Monica tells her kids–Anne (Noel Kate Cho) and David, “We’re not staying long.” She also asks her husband, “What if something happens to him. The hospital is one hour away.” These are the foreseeable difficulties, but others are to come.

The story takes place in the 1980s, before cellphones, the internet and wifi. For this family, it is also before they have dependable running water. Jacob must dig his own well and decides he doesn’t need to pay for a local water diviner. He finds the right spot on his own because, he tells David,  Koreans are smart. That in itself may be a sore point. Jacob’s talent is as a chick sorter. He’s fast. His wife’s slow, but in Arkansas, she quick enough.

Jacob’s dream is a farm. He has five acres, but dreams of 55. Jacob hires a local worker, Paul (Will Patton), with strange, but strong religious beliefs. There are some harsh realities. Weather and water are challenges for all farmers as well as unreliable markets. Most small farms require large families and strong support systems, but Jacob and Monica have left that behind, first in South Korea and then in California.

In 1990, the Korean ethnic population in California was 259,941 but in Arkansas, it was only 1,037 according to the National Association of Korean Americans. In 2000, that would increase to 1,550. In the film, Monica asks a Korean co-worker, Mrs. Oh (Esther Moon), why with 15 Koreans in the area haven’t formed a Korean church. Oh, tells her to look at the people there. They came to escape the Korean church. At the local church, Jacob and Monica find themselves ill-at-ease and their culturally-tied expectations not met.

In California, Jacob worked for a decade, but only had a tiny house and no money. His wife grumbles, their family didn’t get all of his earnings, and he replies, “I’m the eldest son; I have to take care of the family.” Already we can see that between husband and wife, within the same culture, definitions differ. What does family mean?

With both parents working, they send for Monica’s mother. Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung) to help with the kids. Soon-ja brings Korean food stuffs, Korean remedies for David and some mischievous ways. She’s not the kind of person you want at church, particularly when it comes time to pass around the plate. She is the person who, after walking around the Yi farm, finds the right place to plant minari.

Minari, also known as Chinese celery, water celery or water dropwort, is a perennial herb that can grow wild in most areas. Soon-ja plants her seeds near a stream. When the water table drops and the well runs dry, it’s from that stream that David and Soon-ja carry buckets of water, hard work that worried Monica.

The film Minari is not about the success or failure of the farm, but of the stress and struggle of this family taking root in a new frontier.

Minari With Steven Yeun, Ether Moon, Han Ye-ri (back row L-R), Alan Kim & Noel Kate Cho (front row L-R-). A24 Photo

The dialogue, most of which is in Korean, isn’t as important as the faces and physicality of the actors. There are some things that a film cannot convey. While we see the suggestion of death early on from the smoke that rises as the male chicks are disposed of off screen, we cannot experience the smells.  If you’ve had limited experience with chickens and chicks, you might get warm, fuzzy feelings about the chick-sorting and the Yis having chicks at home. If you’ve ever been around a poultry farm, then you know there is a potential smell problem. Think of working under the smog of burnt male chicks and the odiferous sting of high ammonia content manure.

After seeing the film, I  remembered being in the car as a young girl as we passed the poultry farm on our way to see either my mother’s sister or my maternal grandmother, both of whom lived on farms, out of sight from their nearest neighbors. The dirt road to their farms was not dark like the Arkansas mud. The surrounding Southern California land was far from a luxurious green we see in the film Minari. I remember the days of frost warnings meant potential disaster. I thought of my grandparents surviving days of rains in rural California, worried about rattlesnakes, scorpions and racist people in the surrounding towns and cities.   I remember the relief that fell over the farms after harvest. Farming is hard, even brutal and requires both pragmatism and an enduring optimism. Both farms are now gone, sold to developers of other enterprises, but the legacy of farming marks my character and views even to this day. 

Although the discussion that followed the streaming event emphasized Minari was a Korean American experience, when I saw the film, I also thought of the first Asian Americans on the mainland, people who came and could not own land. I wonder how different California would look if the Chinese had not been driven out of towns and cities and then prevented from coming to the US with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. I wonder how big the Korean, Japanese and Filipino populations would be without the immigration acts that followed. I wondered about the wealth and culture that could have evolved and how that unfulfilled promise is happening now. Films like Minari and last year’s The Farewell are part of that promise fulfilled. 

Alan Kim as David in Minari. A24 photo

Steven Yeun’s Red Eyes

During the discussion, Chung noted that Minari is a “new creation” but “it retained so much of the spirit of what I remember from growing up.” Oh felt the film “deeply speaks to the American experience in a way I’ve never seen before,” but she also discussed the concept of han. For her, Bong Joon-Ho, the director of Parasite, “He didn’t have a Korean American han,” something that is gained from “not having been seen.”

Yanagi Sōetsu defined “han” (恨) as “beauty of sorrow” during the Japanese colonization of Korea. Yet it can also be defined as a form of grief or resentment. Professor Michael D. Shin who teaches Korean history and language at the Robinson College at the University of Cambridge talks about the difficulty of translation and notes that it “is most commonly associated with separated families” (e.g. the Korean War).  Elsewhere, it was defined as both rage and regret.

When Oh asked Yeun about Jacob’s effort to find a place or what is it about Jacob that scared him, Yeun revealed that at first he was concerned about “getting the language specifically correct.” However, he crossed a “large hurdle” that helped him let go of that approach. “I had to overcome the gaze of my own internalized understanding of my parents, overcome romanticization, or the lionization, even the infantilization of them” and “the way that we talk about our parents because we’re somewhat severed from them through communication and through cultural boundaries.” Often “we remember them through their suffering or in the ways that we miscommunicate love to each other.” To play Jacob, Yeun felt,  “I had to overcome that archetypical idea of who our parents are,” but he also lamented,  “A Korean American existence, and perhaps an immigrant existence, especially if you are second generation holds within it a deep isolation.”

For the red-eyed Yeun, who was visibly weeping, “The pain of making this film was not just the difficulty of the circumstances…the most difficult part was being caught in the middle, balancing the Korean way of doing things and then the American way of doing things” and then having voices from both sides misunderstand each other” but certain individuals like Chung or himself are “sitting in this gap space trying to work as a conduit so that both sides may be able  to access this very human tale. It’s painful because you’re servicing something larger than you and also understanding how to let go,  letting go your own will and desire to be deeply seen. The beauty of doing that, submitting to that has been for me, a deep reconnection to my childhood, and a recontexualization of understanding.”

Yeun remembered, “When I was four and brought over here and  had my world turned upside down, that was traumatic.” As time passed, the pull of two cultures resulted in a slow severing of child from parents, however, in making this film, he and viewers are able “to see each other again as fathers, to see each other again as mothers, to see each other again as husband and wives” is magical.

“I think the only way we got to this feeling was by allowing access for everybody on the universal basic truth of humanity. Because if we didn’t humanize ourselves in this experience and in this story by not over-explaining, by not making it for-us by-us, by not keeping a gate around it, but rather just opening it up to everybody, it actually allowed us to see ourselves a little clearer.”

Minari is set to be released 12 February 2021. 

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