Truth and Movies

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Hannah Strong

@thethirdhan

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Seung Won Chun

Lee Isaac Chung, Steven Yeun and Alan S Kim on making Minari

The writer/director and on-screen father-son tell the story of how they captured cinematic lightning in a bottle.

In a pivotal scene from Elia Kazan’s 1955 John Steinbeck adaptation, East of Eden, wayward son Cal Trask (James Dean) presents his father Adam (Raymond Massey) with a wad of money, earned from his wartime bean-growing business. The intention of his gesture is to win respect and affection.

Adam, viewing the venture as a form of war-profiteering, refuses to accept the gift, and says, “I’d be happy if you’d give me something like your brother’s given me. Something honest and human and good.” Cal, devastated by what he views as another emotional rejection, wails as he tearfully embraces his shocked father, then flees the house. It’s a strikingly unvain performance from Dean, his anguish palpable enough that audiences might recoil, uncomfortable with such a naked theatrical display. But it’s real – a full- bodied, shaking and yowling portrait of defeat.

A similar moment occurs late in Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari, when the Yi family undergo a crisis on the farm they have sacrificed so much to keep alive. There are, indeed, numerous parallels between Steinbeck’s novel (which was based on family exploits) and Chung’s autobiographical film. Set some 60 years apart, these twin explorations of familial discord playing out against rural backdrops touch on similar themes of faith, love, and the struggle for acceptance and greatness. But another connecting force comes in the form of Dean, whose spirit lingers both in Minari’s DNA and the performance delivered by Steven Yeun as struggling patriarch, Jacob, who moves his young family from California to a farm in rural Arkansas in pursuit of the American Dream.

The real story began before Chung was born, when his father still lived in Korea. “James Dean was a huge part of his life. Somehow his movies convinced my dad to move to America, and it’s weird because you watch those same movies and they should be dissuading you from coming to the US because there’s so much angst there,” says Chung. “But my Dad would see the backdrop of America and he felt like it was a place of opportunity, and he would see James Dean as someone who was able to express himself as an individual. I think there was something in that that my Dad wanted to move towards, and away from the collectivist society in Korea.”

Some six decades after Dean inspired Chung’s father to move to America and seek his own American Dream, Chung had a conversation with the actor Steven Yeun while preparing to shoot Minari. “He was talking about his hair before the film, and he confessed to me that, ‘A lot of times I think about this part, I think about James Dean,’ and that blew my mind. We were both excited about that same person as a model, and he’s not someone that you would naturally assume would be a model for a film like this. For an immigrant story.” But in plenty of ways, the model of James Dean makes perfect sense for a story like Minari: one about self-expression, performative masculinity, spirited rebellion and the search for identity and belonging against the sprawling wilderness of the American South.

But Minari nearly didn’t happen at all. Chung didn’t grow up dreaming of making films, even if he and his sister convinced their father they should subscribe to the mail-order Columbia Video Club (which he agreed to, on the proviso he was allowed to choose half of the films). “Filmmaking was never a possibility for me. Growing up where I grew up, you don’t think about that as a possibility.” Born in Denver, Colorado, Chung’s family moved to a farm in rural Arkansas when he was seven. He later studied biology at Yale, planning on becoming a doctor. “It wasn’t until my senior year that I started to watch a lot of other types of films, namely because I took a Video Arts class to fulfil an Arts requirement, and I thought I should watch some more serious films that my friends talked about,” he laughs. “Wong Kar-wai stood out to me during that time, and I was discovering a lot of Asian cinema. I would say those films were the ones that convinced me to pursue filmmaking.”

Trading plans for medical school with graduate film studies, Chung would tell friends about his childhood on the farm, and his screenwriting professor encouraged him to write something about the experience. “But I just never felt it was the right time. I was warring with the belief that my story wasn’t interesting and that I would never be able to get the funding to make it the way that I wanted, and so many things that made it feel like a futile exercise.”

So Chung made three fiction features (including Munyurangabo, the first narrative feature filmed in the Kinyarwanda language) and a documentary, as well as teaching college students and mentoring young filmmakers in Rwanda. “It wasn’t until I started to think maybe I don’t have many more projects in me, because the life of being a filmmaker was becoming so difficult, that I realised I should write a script of the thing that is the most meaningful to me, and see if I can get that made.”

Two years after Chung began writing down his memories, in the autumn of 2018, Steven Yeun – having exited his regular role as Glenn Rhee on AMC horror series The Walking Dead, as well as receiving widespread acclaim following the Cannes premiere of Lee Chang-dong’s sublime Burning – was passed the script for Minari by a mutual agent. “I read it immediately, and the thing I loved about it was that it spoke from its own perspective,” Yeun says. “It didn’t need to explain itself or contextualise itself to any type of gaze or majority. It was just its own thing.” Filming began the following summer – a rare instance of the Hollywood machine working relatively quickly. Yeun would also serve as executive producer as he “felt this was such a personal, delicate thing, that I wanted to make sure I helped to protect its integrity throughout the process.”

Casting Yeun as his father was a no-brainer for Chung. “It made a lot of sense and I could see it working. I see so much in Steven that reminds me of the character that I ended up writing – someone who is really dissatisfied with being labelled or categorised in any way, and wants to really find and express who he is. He’s not like my Dad – they’re very different – but I was okay with that and I wanted the film to go in a different direction rather than exactly mimicking what had happened in my life.”

It’s true that Jacob does seem to have plenty in common with Yeun, who has spoken of his frustration working as an Asian- American actor in an industry beset with type-casting and racism. Like Jacob, Yeun possesses a quiet intensity on screen – it’s what made him so perfect for the role of smiling sociopath Ben in Burning, but allows him to change gears to give a warm, emotional performance as a father trying to reconcile personal ambitions with duty towards his family. It’s easy to picture Yeun as a successor to Dean – both share a rare on-screen magnetism and sensitivity. Their portrayals of masculinity as a work in progress – pushing back against years of societal expectations to try and find a way toward individual freedom and happiness – seem to be in dialogue.

But if Yeun’s beleaguered dreamer is Minari’s heart, his character’s mischievous seven-year-old son David (an avatar for Chung), played by newcomer Alan S Kim, is its soul. Minari is Kim’s first film role, but you wouldn’t know it from watching him. “I realised early on I needed to let go of trying to find someone who might remind me of myself,” admits Chung. “Alan had sent in an audition and we lucked out. He’s a miracle. He checked all the boxes: he could speak Korean; he could feed his grandmother pee and we wouldn’t hate him for it. He’s just so cute and magnetic. We brought him to LA to do an audition with Steven, and it was clear just from that that he was going to be alright.”

Yeun attests to Kim’s talent too, which was evident from the first time they met. “He just clicked right in with me and was present with me right then. I looked at Isaac like, ‘This dude’s so legit’. The purity in which he approaches this work is something that usually gets stifled for most performers, regardless of age.” Kim himself – now eight – speaks of the experience with a familiar cheekiness. “I don’t exactly remember the audition. I guess it was good!”

Kim is every bit as sparky and bright as Yeun and Chung say. Over Zoom he introduces me to his dog, a snoozing puffball called Cream, explaining, “We were going to call him Latte, but it didn’t really fit this cutie.” After appearing at Minari’s Sundance premiere in a fetching cowboy outfit, Kim became the festival’s favourite guest, though he remains lowkey about the whole affair. “My Mom chose that because she wanted to!” he exclaims. Kim’s more interested in hanging out with his dog than sartorial chatter, though he lights up when asked about his favourite movies. “I guess they would be the Harry Potter movies, because they’re just so exciting. I like the magic,” he pauses thoughtfully.

“I think it’s just greenscreen though, I’m not sure.” When it came to making his first feature film, he’s admirably cool about the whole experience. “There were no hard parts,” he says, “except we were filming in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and it’s so hot there. And there are tornadoes that come there. So I was like, ‘Is there gonna be a tornado?!’” Luckily there weren’t any tornadoes during filming.

The process of making Minari meant a chance to revisit the past for both Chung and Yeun. The latter moved from South Korea to the USA with his parents at the age of five, and it affected his sense of self-identity deeply. “When I was growing up all I really wanted – and perhaps I didn’t know clearly then – was to feel as human as the people I was around,” Yeun recalls.

“I couldn’t necessarily explain it when I was young, which is why I tried to contort and conform and break myself and suppress myself in ways so I could feel hu- man in outward ways. By just… emulating whiteness, to be quite honest with you. And it was a long time before I was able to see myself a little clearer, give myself a little more freedom, obtain a little more confidence and understand who I am so that I could approach something like this.”

Minari is the perfect showcase for Yeun’s talent, allowing him to draw on personal experience while bringing to life a character who holds the weight of two worlds on his shoulders. Jacob Yi is a link between the collectivism of his Korean roots and the individualist American Dream sold to immigrants who moved to the United States in search of fortune and freedom. Although politics might not play an overt role in Minari, the film’s ’80s setting that means Reaganism looms large, pushing Americans towards the mantra that individualism is the key to success.

Yeun speaks to Jacob’s internal conflict and desire to strike out in a world forcing him to choose between two binaries. “There are feelings of isolation that come with an immigrant experience, especially second-generation, and these pertain to Jacob around the desire to really make something for yourself. I think a lot about the dynamic between collectivism and individualism, which are always butting heads. That’s the place that a lot of immigrant people live in – that tension – and they usually pick one side, escape into the ghettos where they can just be with their own people, or they try to function within the system as they know it.

“We were trying to tell the story of what it’s like when they’re just themselves, living in that gap. Jacob is leaving collectivism, and he deeply wants to feel what it’s like to make a life on his terms. I think that’s the beauty of America, the prospect of the American Dream. But that also has its negatives and I think living in that tension is integral to the story. We wanted to capture that feeling of not being firmly rooted or planted anywhere, or in anything, except yourself. I deeply relate to that on a personal level.”

Minari is a Korean story and an American story, holding these two truths at the same time. This duality is what makes it so beautiful and refreshing. But despite being set and filmed firmly in the United States, there is still a sense that Hollywood isn’t equipped to handle a film which sits in the space between two worlds. In December 2020 there was outcry when the Hollywood Foreign Press Association decided that, as most of the film’s dialogue is in Korean, Minari would not be eligible for the Best Drama Golden Globe, and would instead compete
in the Best Foreign Language Film category.

Others stepped forward to criticise the move, including Lulu Wang, whose film The Farewell was categorised in the same way in 2019. When asked about the situation, Yeun is philosophical: “We live in such a binary world now – the way that we speak to each other and connect with each other sometimes flattens discussion and flattens the nuance of real life, and I think that’s kind of what the Globes thing is caught in. I don’t think anyone is explicitly trying to be racist, or reject something, they just don’t even know how to see it clearly. I think rules and institutions can never really grasp the nuance of life and reality, because it’s a little bit greyer than we understand, so when we try to define it, it always lacks. But I’m glad this is happening. I’m glad these things are butting up against each other, because hopefully it expands their definition.”

The tensions between Korean and American culture create moments of humour and conflict in Minari. When grandma Soonja (the supremely talented Youn Yuh-jung) comes to live with the Yi family, she speaks no English, and David resents having to speak Korean to her, as well as having to sacrifice half his bedroom to her. When Soonja calls David a “pretty boy” in English, he protests, yelling “I’m not pretty! I’m good looking!” and runs away.

Thoughts turn once again to the spirit of James Dean, and the push-pull in Western culture around visions of masculinity. The poster boy for a type of manhood that was unabashedly emotional, Dean was unafraid to give himself over to the work, twisting his body into a vision of torment incarnate, but Rebel Without a Cause still suggests shame in being seen as passive and “feminine” as a man. Jim Stark bitterly resents his father, who is seen throughout the film wearing a frilly apron and deferring to his more strident wife. It’s not enough for Jim to have parents who love him – he needs a role model who embodies his idea of masculinity.

“I think the journey to see ourselves represented comes with this desire to guard and gatekeep it.” — Steven Yeun

Of course, David Yi is too young to think too much about what it means to be a man, but this brief exchange with his grandmother shows how we internalise these ideas from a young age. Similarly, Jacob harbours a desire to continue with his farming dream despite his wife’s growing feelings of isolation and resentment towards him. Chung agrees that the idea of performing masculinity weighed on his mind when writing the film. “It’s that inner conflict that we thought a lot about. That pressure is so heavy in Korean culture, and especially was during that time.

It can be oppressive,” he says. “But at the same time it’s something you don’t really escape in a way. It stays with you.” Another resounding theme in the film is the impact of faith upon a family, both in God (the Yi family attend Church, and befriend a local Korean War veteran named Paul, who has a rather intense way of showing his devotion to Jesus) and in one another. So much of Minari is about human connection and human kindness.

Hearing Chung say he thought Minari might not even get made leads me to wonder whether filmmaking itself is an act of faith. “I feel like the work itself has the potential to be a spiritual process,” he says. “Especially since it’s something that’s done in community. The idea that if something is done well it can bring a community together always resonated with me. Obviously there are a lot of relationships to faith within the film that are personal for me, whether it comes with outright scepticism to even the most mystical and crazy expressions of that, like what Paul has. When it comes to a southern American story, that’s just the texture of our lives and it’s something that I knew I wanted to incorporate from the start. But one of the key things for me in the film is that shot of the family at the table together with Paul, almost like having Communion. That’s the image of the film that I’ve always wanted – that we were all at a table, working together, believing in something.”

It’s clear that making Minari was deeply meaningful for the whole team. In a cast and crew panel for Korean American Day moderated by Sandra Oh, Yeun spoke movingly about playing a character like his own father, and how the experience meant reevaluating the image of his parents built up in his mind over the course of his life. He expands on this in our conversation, explaining the shift in perspective that develops with age: “When you’re a child you look at your parents as this oppression, this thing that doesn’t understand you and is keeping you down,” he says.

“Then you get to the other side and you understand, maybe through having children of your own or just gaining a little perspective on it, ‘Oh, they were right.’ But it’s not necessarily that they were right. The experience with Minari was that balance of trying to not define our parents by their oppressive nature, but also to not over-praise them. Not because they don’t deserve it, but in order to see them as real, full duality-holding human beings. When you romanticise or lionise your parents you’re kind of pushing them away by creating them as this fixture in your life that’s separate from you. But I realised that we’re not separate, we’re just the same thing at a different time under different circumstances.”

Chung agrees, and laughs when I bring up Steven’s comments from the panel. “Steven articulated it so wonderfully. That guy can talk for a long time, and it’s all true,” he says. “I didn’t know if I could get this film made, to be honest. There was a moment when I was writing the story when I knew I wasn’t doing this to try to get a movie made, or to try to make something that would be meaningful to other people. It was to do something that would be meaningful to me, to work through things in my own life and emotions, and to try to understand my parents, the difficulties we went through back then, and the way that ripples down to who I am now as a dad, who’s prone to the same problems and temptations and all these things that can cause a family to go further apart.”

Turning to a generation so young we don’t even have a nickname for them yet, I ask Kim about his own family and what he likes most about them. “Well, first thing, I like my dog. Next is that I can annoy my sister sometimes… and the third thing is that… as a family, we get a lot of things that are good.” He grins.

The experience of bringing such a deeply personal story to life enabled Chung to address the feelings of tension in his own mind between the past and the present. “Ultimately I feel as though there was some kind of burden that was lifted in some way, that I was feeling about my parents, and I think that comes through acceptance. What I was able to do with this story and with the writing was to accept who they are and see them. Not through the lens of my expectations of what they should have done, or through the feeling that I need to simply honour and have gratitude for them. But to see them as human beings.”

That desire to be seen fully, in all our multifaceted glory, is a constant struggle. Although Jacob starts off believing he’ll strike out on his own, he comes to realise it’s much easier to work with others and to accept the outstretched hand. “I don’t feel like I exercise that enough in my own life, but I have those wishes,” Chung says.

Yeun adds that the experience of bringing this story to life means opening up the immigrant experience to a wider audience. “I think the journey to see ourselves represented comes with this desire to guard and gatekeep it, and make sure no one else can touch it, and I deeply empathise with that instinct. But then there’s something on the other side of that, which means just letting go and pulling the walls down, allowing access for all of us to connect on a human level. That was really our goal.”

And Kim, when asked what he learned from making Minari, offers perhaps the most prescient piece of wisdom of all: “You can only be yourself. So don’t try to be someone you’re not.”

Minari is available to watch at home from 2 April and is released in cinemas 17 May. Read the LWLies Recommends review.

Published 30 Mar 2021

Tags: Alan S Kim Lee Isaac Chung Minari Steven Yeun

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