There are so many things about Lee Isaac Chung’s semi-autobiographical drama Minari which make it magical. From Lachlan Milne’s dreamy cinematography, which transports viewers to the plains of rural Arkansas, to Emile Mosseri’s ethereal score which brings together choral overtures with lilting piano and guitar melodies, it’s a beautifully-realised story of family heartbreak and hope. Chung’s script, which blends melancholy and humour with the physical and emotional labour of trying to make a home in a hostile land, is beautifully brought to life through the work of a talented ensemble cast.
Newcomer Alan S Kim has captured hearts around the world with his performance as eight-year-old David, while South Korean veteran actress Youn Yuh-jung’s turn as the mischievous grandmother Soon-ja lights up the screen from the second she appears. In addition, Han Ye-ri is compelling as Monica Yi, the mother and loyal wife trying her best to support her husband’s dreams of providing a better future for their family. It’s hard to pick a favourite player in the year’s finest ensemble, but one member of the cast is finally getting his dues: the supremely talented Steven Yeun, who has received a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his role as the Yi family’s determined patriarch, Jacob.
Drawing inspiration from the rough-hewn rebellious spirit of James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause and East of Eden, Yeun presents Jacob as a man torn between his dreams and his familial obligations. Although he sees his desire for self-sufficiency and a piece of the American Dream as in service of his loved ones, he fails to consider how uprooting his family from their Californian home to the rural midwest takes its toll, and the more he digs his heels in, the more the fractures in their tight unit begin to show. Through physical labour and moments of hard-won tenderness, Yeun creates a compelling portrait of a man trapped between multiple worlds, as he attempts to reconcile his immigrant identities (as both a Korean and West Coast transplant) with his desire for prosperity.
Although Yeun has (quite rightfully!) received plenty of praise for Minari, his acting career has been going from strength to strength for over a decade, since he received his breakout role as the wisecracking Glenn Rhee on zombie apocalypse drama The Walking Dead back in 2010. Over the course of 66 episodes, Yeun portrayed a former pizza delivery driver whose quick-thinking and resourcefulness made him a firm favourite among fans. The romance between Glenn and another survivor, Maggie (Lauren Cohan), came to symbolise a glimmer of hope in the otherwise dark world of the show, and when Yeun’s character was brutally killed off in the show’s seventh season, many claimed there was a sharp decline in subsequent quality.
But Yeun couldn’t be stopped. The year after he left The Walking Dead, he had a memorable supporting role in Bong Joon-ho’s action-adventure Okja as K, an animal rights activist and translator who assists Mija and her beloved super pig as they go on the run from the Mirando Corporation. It’s a pivotal role: K initially appears to betray Mija and Okja, and receives a hefty punishment for it, but proves his dedication to the cause in the end. Bong is a huge fan of Yeun; speaking to Variety he said, “Sometimes he feels like the guy next door while other times he carries this great sense of mystery and secrecy.”
The same year, he led Joe Lynch’s horror-comedy Mayhem, about a mysterious pandemic that makes humans lose their inhibitions. Given Yeun’s background in comedy (he studied and performed improv in and after college) he was a perfect fit for the role of Derek Cho, an apathetic lawyer who loses his cool after being set-up by a colleague and, as the virus sweeps through their office building, exacts his revenge on his conniving workmates. Stylish, darkly funny and gleefully violent, the strong duo of Yeun and co-star Samara Weaving make for a winning combination.
Sticking with the comic side of Yeun’s range, it’s more than worth seeking out Yeun’s appearance in the first episode of the absurdist Netflix sketch show I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson, where he plays a party host who runs afoul of a bathroom faux pas. It’s only a short sketch, but remains one of the show’s most memorable
2018 was another banner year for Yeun, with roles in Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You and Lee Chang-dong’s haunting neo-noir Burning, based on a short story by Haruki Murakami. In the latter, Yeun plays Ben, a smooth operator who appears to be hiding a dark secret. It was a departure from the more comic image Yeun had developed and demonstrated his versatility as a performer. He’s quietly unnerving but undeniably charming as the rich, mysterious antagonist to Yoo Ah-in’s Lee Jong-su.
Yeun has also had an impressive career in voice-acting too, with roles in numerous animated series under his belt, including Voltron: Legendary Defender and Trollhunters: Tales of Arcadia. In 2019 he joined the cast of Tuca & Bertie, created by cartoonist Lisa Hanawalt, playing Speckle the robin: a strait-laced architect and the boyfriend of Ali Wong’s Bertie. In one scene, Speckle has an idea for a special dinner, which consists of two different kinds of oven fries; a moment of pure joy. The show was originally cancelled by Netflix, but will return this year thanks to Adult Swim. Meanwhile, Yeun is also voicing the lead role in Amazon Prime Video’s Invincible, about a teenager whose father (voiced by JK Simmons!) is the most powerful superhero on the planet.
Still to come this year is The Humans, directed by Stephen Karam based on his play of the same name, and thanks to Minari, it’s likely that we’ll be seeing plenty of Steven Yeun in the future. His success is richly deserved, but it hasn’t happened overnight. With Minari’s release in the UK, we hope that plenty more viewers will discover the range and charm of one of the finest actors working today: it’s Steven Yeun’s world right now, we’re just living in it.
Minari is available to watch at home from 2 April at minari.film
Published 1 Apr 2021
Brighten up your year with our illustrated celebration of Lee Isaac Chung’s charming immigrant fable.
By Ian Wang
Lee Isaac Chung’s film carries on a tradition of skepticism towards the promises of cultural assimilation.
The writer/director and on-screen father-son tell the story of how they captured cinematic lightning in a bottle.