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
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
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
"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
"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