Actor Steven Yeun had spent his life working for the moment he looked at his father, sitting next to him at the Minari premiere at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival and saw him cry. Yeuns’ father caught him taking a look and put his hand on his son’s shoulder. Yeun returned the gesture. And then they both started to sob. Literally. Torrents of tears. No words were exchanged at that time or later. There was just that deep feeling of every man finally feeling understood.
This moment did not surprise Lee Isaac Chung, the writer and director of Minari. For many Korean American households, he says, there is not only a cultural divide between immigrant parents and American-born children, there is also a language barrier that often prevents meaningful communication. This barrier was the starting point for Minari, a story, loosely based on its own life, about a Korean American family moving to a farm in the heart of the country to take root and claim a more meaningful life.
Chung wrote the film to tell his father that he appreciated his sacrifices. And then he had much the same experience as Yeun when he unveiled the film to his family on Thanksgiving weekend before its Sundance premiere.
I showed them the day after Thanksgiving, which meant the day before, during Thanksgiving dinner, I was a nervous wreck, Chung laughs. When it came time to finally show them, I thought to myself: do I serve wine at this thing? Will the wine make them more upset or help calm the mood? I was more nervous about it than Sundance, to be completely honest.
For the record, Chung served wine, and at one point he stopped wondering if he had honored his parents or accurately described their struggle and appreciated the fact that they were together at his South Pasadena home, everyone appreciating that they had endured and were still together.
Chung wrote Minari in July 2018 as he prepared to move to South Korea with his wife and daughter to teach film classes at the University of Utah’s Asian campus. Chung had made four films, including his first feature film from 2007, Munyurangabo, a thoughtful drama set in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide, shot entirely in Rwanda with local actors. Munyurangabo premiered in Cannes, earning a prestigious place in the Un Certain Regard festival section. But a decade later, Chung felt his career was stalled and began to consider becoming a full-time teacher.
Basically, I was the Professor of Soul, Chung laughs, referring to Pixar Animation’s latest feature film in which the main character struggles with a career commitment in his 40s.
Before shifting gears, Chung wanted to give cinema one last try, putting everything he had in the personal story that became Minari. Then he left for Korea and waited. Nothing. He took some students to the Busan Film Festival and ran into a friend, CAA agent Christina Chou. Chung told her about the script, making sure she knew it wasn’t what you think of as a Hollywood movie. Chou loved it, signed Chung as a client and then shortly thereafter signed Yeun as well. Coincidentally, the two are cousins by marriage, although, apart from a couple of family marriages, they have never met.
If you add up the number of years Chung has pursued his dream, his 14th birthday, which makes Jacob a rather deliberate name for Patriarch Minaris.
Thinking of Minari, I was calculating how many years I had worked on it, then I thought about the Old Testament and how Jacob waited seven years to marry his wife, and it turns out that ‘He has to wait another seven years, and that’s sort of a tragedy for him,’ Chung says. Regarding my career, I was thinking, when am I going to have this marriage? But then I had to think, Wait. I’m married and have an amazing wife, and that’s what this story is about. I needed to reframe the whole paradigm of what Jacob sees as his salvation or his humanity.
Chung, 42, takes a break. He is a thoughtful, witty and incisive man, full of hope (within reason) and possessing a refreshing self-awareness that comes out with perfect timing. I just thought the name Jacob was right for me because I, as an idiot, just saw myself as Jacob for all the wrong reasons, so I wanted this guy to be Jacob too.
Yeun recalls texting Chung, asking if the name was intentional (both men are Christians), and the answer came: You may have found out about me. Yeun had left The Walking Dead in 2015, acclaimed by critics for his work in the touching Lee Chang-dongs, mysterious black thriller Burning in 2018. But too often, future storylines have focused on Korean-American identity juxtaposed with it. ‘White America.
Minari (in theaters and streaming) told the story from the perspective of a specific Korean family: Headstrong Jacob (Yeun), his sometimes impatient wife Monica (Yeri Han), their two children (Noel Cho and Alan S . Kim) and, arriving in the middle of the film, an irascible grandmother (Yuh-jung Youn).
(The cast was nominated in the ensemble category of the SAG Awards, with Yeun and Youn taking individual honors. Kim, meanwhile, who sat next to Yeun for part of our conversation, turned into an adorable story. His favorite part of the movie, “ Drink the mountain dew! ” the 7-year-old responds, referring to his characters’ favorite drink.)
I don’t think a movie like Minari has ever been shot in this context from this country in this situation, so initially I felt some pressure to serve a larger idea of what a father was. Korean, because that archetype is important, says Yeun. It took a while for me to come to accept Jacob as just a human being. Come to think of it, I was like, man, this was harder than it had to be.
But I realized how few examples we have of it, Yeun continues. Still navigating a business and a career and an art form that many Asian Americans don’t really have. It changes. But it also leaves us with no real roadmap. So each step feels new. Each step looks like a border. I’ve found pride in it lately. I realized that this bet, even though my parents never wanted me to take it, was an extension of their bet. That way I was like, Oh. I am my father.
Which brings us back to that night at Sundance over a year ago, the tears, the tacit understanding, the feelings they’re still going through.
I’m still talking to my dad and trying to capture him with words, but it’s elusive, Yeun says. But then when we just connect to the feeling, it’s like, OK. Good.
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