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Where EAST meets the Northwest

AMERICAN DREAM. Han Yeri, back row from left, Steven Yeun, director Lee Isaac Chung, and foreground from left, Yuh Jung Youn, Alan Kim, and Noel Cho pose for a portrait to promote the film Minari during the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. The film won the top drama prize at its premiere at Sundance. (Photo by Taylor Jewell/Invision/AP)

From The Asian Reporter, V31, #3 (March 1, 2021), page 13.

In Minari, harvesting an American dream

By Jake Coyle

AP Film Writer

NEW YORK ó The riverbed, more than anything else, needed to be exactly right.

In Lee Isaac Chungís Arkansas-set family drama, Minari, land is something more than a setting. Itís a future. Itís a dream. Jacob Yi (Steven Yeun) has moved his family to a wide-open Arkansas plot to farm the land and, hopefully, release him and his wife from years of toil at poultry plants. He tills it not for the areaís typical crops but for vegetables common to Korean cooking that he believes will feed other Korean immigrants like himself. His mother-in-law (Youn Yuh-jung) also finds a gentle creek bed to grow minari, the leafy vegetable popular in Korea.

In Chungís film, the watery basin throbs with significance ó a physical symbol of putting roots down, of Korean-American harmony, of resiliency. At first, everywhere Chung looked, the soil was wrong, the flow not right. A location scout mentioned a place he had played as a child. Chung, in the midst of making a deeply personal story about his own upbringing, liked that connection.

Chung planted the spot with minari plants his father had been growing in Kansas City. The director had been too frightened to tell his family he was making a film about them, so his borrowing of the minari was mysterious. It was trucked in crates to the Oklahoma shoot. The minari in Minari was sowed by Chungís father ó an almost impossibly poignant bit of set dressing in a film that blooms in the gap between generations.

"That wasnít lost on me," Chung chuckles, speaking from Los Angeles. "I think he kind of knew what I was getting at with the film but we were just not talking about it. He wanted to come to the set and see what we were doing but I kind of said no. We had some friction during production, to be honest, and it didnít go away until I showed him the film and then it kind of alleviated all the tension we had."

Minari, which A24 is currently streaming with a wider digital release that began in late February, wasnít a large production. It was made for less than $10 million. Itís modestly registered to the pace of life and the intimate scale of family. But the film, a Plan B production (Brad Pitt is an executive producer), has steadily gathered force since its premiere at Sundance, where it won the top drama prize.

The Golden Globes spawned a controversy by limiting Minari (a deeply American film, with dirt in its fingers, and largely Korean dialogue) to its foreign-language film category. But the movie has racked up awards elsewhere, including a bushel of nominations from the Screen Actors Guild, a reliable Oscar bellwether. And perhaps most importantly, its honest and authentic rendering of an Asian-American family, in an entertainment world so often reliant on stereotype, has resonated meaningfully for many.

But before all that, Minari moved the parents of its makers first. At Sundance, Chung, Yeun, and producer Christina Oh ó all the children of first-generation immigrants from Korea ó brought their mothers and fathers to the premiere, putting them up at the same Park City condo complex. Oh could feel her mother during the movie squeezing her arm in delight. When Yeun and his father stood up at the end, they hugged, and sobbed.

"I could hear Stevenís dad watching the film and getting emotional at times," remembers Chung. "When I saw the way those two embraced after the screening, it was almost a mirror image to the way my dad and I embraced after I showed him the film. I guess that feeling felt very new to me."

For Yeun, the Seoul-born 37-year-old actor of Burning and "The Walking Dead," the film is about that emotion. Yeunís family emigrated when he was four years old and ultimately settled in Michigan.

"This movie is a feeling for me. The feeling is the thing that keeps it connected to everybody," said Yeun by phone from Los Angeles. "I donít know how itís getting its way out there, specifically. But I just do know the feeling is getting out there."

Chung, 42, had made three movies before, including the Rwanda-set Munyurangabo. But when he sat down to write what became Minari, he began differently. He just started listing memories of his childhood in Arkansas. Little things like his mother cleaning out his ears, his parentsí lunchbox.

"It was surprising to me that as I was writing down the memories, I started to see the story," says Chung.

Wanting to find a balance between a memory piece and melodrama, Chung imaged something that combined the neo-realism of Roberto Rosselliniís Stromboli with the earthy, wide-screen American epics like East of Eden and Giant that his father raised him on.

"I remember when I told my parents that I wanted to be a filmmaker, and no longer was I planning to be a doctor, one of the first things my mom said to my dad was: ĎThis is your fault. You watched too many movies,í" says Chung, laughing. "My dad told me that it was movies that brought him to America."

If Chung was reconstructing his memories into his own film language, Yeun was trying to deconstruct his own sense of his father to see him anew. As in Chungís family, talking about the experience of coming to America hadnít been part of his youth.

"The internal emotional difficulty for me was breaking the mold and the safety of the life that I thought I knew, and how my parents or my father fit into that life," says Yeun. "Thatís a scary proposition in general, to reconstruct or dismantle pillars of your identity. My dad represents to me, the way I used to hold him, as this larger figure in my life that sacrificed and suffered and gave of his own life."

Yeun pauses. "I think I was touching on something that formed me," he says. "And I had to kind of break it down."

Chung had written Minari with the possibility that the dialogue be changed to English. But Oh, a producer (The Last Black Man in San Francisco) with Plan B, believed firmly it should be in Korean ó something few Hollywood executives would advocate for.

"The thing that Iíve learned over the years and that Iíve gravitated toward is that people respond to authenticity and honesty. For me, having lived that upbringing, my parents did not speak English to me," Oh says, speaking from a shoot in New Mexico. "For people to lose themselves in the world, it has to be real. It was a no-brainer."

Ohís parents came to California in the 1980s. They owned an often-robbed convenience store and later turned to a dry-cleaning business. She considers Minari an ode to their parents.

"Our parents came here chasing an idea of an American dream that was sold to them. For me, whatís incredible, taking a step back, weíre almost like their American dream come true," says Oh. "The thing that my parents always told me and Iím sure a lot of immigrant parents say is, ĎWe came here for you.í"

Chung, previously a film professor, nearly gave up filmmaking to teach fulltime before Minari. Now, heís hesitant to say what Minari means in a wider context, but he grants itís made him feel like "part of something bigger than I am."

"Itís felt like we are building a community amongst people who have experienced these things ó even if theyíre not Korean American," he says. "That experience of being children of immigrants and wanting to understand your parents and wanting to honor them through their humanity."

Chungís father did have one complaint. He didnít get his minari back. When Chung returned to the riverbed, it had been washed down stream in a storm. Minari, though, isnít going anywhere.

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