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The first time that actress Yeri Han met with filmmaker Lee Isaac Chung to discuss the possibility of working together on Chung’s deeply personal fourth film “Minari,” the shy duo mostly avoided talking about it. Instead, Han recalled, they focused on their own families and coming-of-age experiences. While Chung’s own childhood inspired the period drama, Han quickly found her own connections to the story.
“I talked about my growing up and about my parents, my mother and father,” she said in a recent interview with IndieWire, speaking through a translator. “Later, on the set, I realized what an important conversation that was. I felt that I wasn’t very different from Isaac through that conversation, and that conversation was vital to understanding and portraying my character.”
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In the ’80s-set “Minari,” Chung draws from his experiences to frame a quintessentially American story of family, ambition, and hope. The child of Korean immigrants, Chung spent most of his early life on an Arkansas farm with his hard-working family, attempting to carve out the kind of American dream they had long imagined for themselves. The film is billed as semi-autobiographical, but the big details — the struggling farm, their cramped trailer, the family dynamics — are true to Chung’s experience.
But that didn’t mean he wanted Han, a South Korean actress with a deep filmography who hadn’t yet made the jump to American cinema, to simply imitate his mother. A lauded star in her native country, Han has proven herself to be capable of playing just about everything, from her star-making role as North Korean table tennis athlete Yu Sun-bok in the biopic “As One” to leading action thrillers like “Haemoo” and the indie rom-com “Worst Woman.”
Before the “Minari” casting, she may not have been a known quantity to most American audiences, but that didn’t stop Chung from eyeing her for the film’s most complex role. Fortunately, Han said she instantly related to Monica, the backbone and the heart of the onscreen “Minari” family, which convinced her to take an unexpected career turn for an actress who only spoke a limited amount of English.
“I wasn’t planning for breaking into the U.S. market per se, but when I first came across this project, I fell in love with Monica,” Han said. “I thought she was very typically Korean, and I thought I could tell a lot about Korea through her character. If Isaac actually asked me to portray his mother, then I would have felt a great burden. But the Monica that I had to portray had to be somebody else, because I didn’t know his mother at all. I tried to find the point that overlaps with the Monica that Isaac portrayed and the Monica that I wanted to portray.”
To find that overlap between Chung’s Monica and Han’s Monica, the actress turned to her own family for inspiration. “I come from a small town, and I have six aunts, so you could say I had a wide range of models of different Korean mothers,” she said. “That served as a big help for me in portraying Monica’s character. The lives of my aunts that I witnessed growing up were never easy, but they tried on their own to cope, and I guess I was able to use the secondary experience directly to portray this character.”
At the center of her own family — and the Chungs — Han said, was a powerful bond. “For all of them, what pulled them through the struggles and hardship was love, this great energy called love,” she said. “I thought about that a lot in thinking about my character.”
“Minari” follows Monica, her husband Jacob (Steven Yeun), their two young children (breakout stars Alan S. Kim and Noel Kate Cho), and her spiky mother Soonja (Yuh-jung Youn) as they attempt to build a life for themselves in rural Arkansas. Nothing about their dream is easy, from the hard labor that goes into raising crops to the alienation they often feel from even their most well-meaning neighbors. If Jacob is the family’s primary dreamer, it’s Monica who is tasked with keeping them tethered to their most immediate concerns.
It’s a tricky part, and one that Han finds immense emotion and pathos within. While it would be easy to cast the pragmatic Monica as simply being in opposition to Jacob, there are no bad guys in “Minari,” simply people trying to do the best they can for their family, whichever way they know how. That’s not to say there isn’t friction between Monica and Jacob, another element of the story that Han was able to pull from her own life.
“My mother and father married very young, so when I was young, they used to have a lot of fights, arguments,” she said. “I guess when you marry young and raise a family at a young age, you endure through that pain of growing together with your own child.” There may be no better way to describe the dynamics at play in “Minari”: a family coming of age, together, and sometimes apart.
That dynamic was even at play off-screen, as Han said the film’s cast and crew bonded intensely over the course of a summer shoot in Tulsa. “It’s not common in the filmmaking process in Korea to spend so much time with your cast, but we spent most of the time there together,” Han said. “We always talked about the film. We had meals together. We were the first people that we saw when we woke up in the morning. It was like a real family experience.”
Han loved that. “There were so many people that had great affection for this project who got together [to make it], and we are all in the same boat,” she said. “We all had the same heart and emotion for the film, and that love was hot and passionate. I guess that really was conveyed through the film, and it ended up being so warm.”
When the film premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, it was quickly hailed by critics and audiences alike, and scored both the U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize and the U.S. Dramatic Audience Award. Suddenly, “Minari” seemed poised to become one of awards season’s big breakouts. The pandemic initially waylaid some of those dreams, with a series of postponed release dates pushing it further back on the calendar, while outdated eligibility rules kept it from entering major races (like competing for Best Picture at the Golden Globes). However, as the film readies for a theatrical and virtual release, the heat is suddenly back on.
The accolades are pouring in: “Minari” was named one of the 10 best films of 2020 by both the American Film Institute and the National Board of Review, while the Critics’ Choice Movie Awards nominated it for 10 awards, including Best Picture. The Screen Actors Guild nominated the film for both individual performances (including Yeun and Youn) and its lauded ensemble award. And the independent film community that fostered Chung hasn’t forgotten it either: the Indie Spirits nominated it for six awards, including Best Supporting Female nods for both Han and Youn.
“I heard this is one of the major, very important film events in America, and many actors and directors have great aspirations [to be nominated],” Han said of the Spirits nod. “I feel very honored just to be nominated for this wonderful award, and I hope it’s going to be a good thing for ‘Minari.'” She added with a laugh, “We keep hearing good news about the film, so I’ve been feeling really great recently.”
Asked if her rising status with American audiences might lure her to work with more filmmakers in the country, Han pondered the question before answering in broader terms. “There are too many [directors] to name now, but I think it’s more important that they are curious about Korean actors and curious about working with us,” she said. “I think, most importantly, the director personally will have to be interested in the individual actor that he wants to work with.”
Perhaps, she wondered, she might move to America for a few years, but said she’s hopeful that any interest in Korean cinema — from “Minari” to “Parasite” — will make Hollywood dreams possible for lots of stars, not just her. “With the recent rising interest in the Korean cinema, I believe it’s going to open up more chances for Korean actors over the next few coming years, and the Korean film market will also grow larger,” she said. “I have great hopes and expectations for the coming years. And on the other hand, I think about am, I ready for that change?”
And yet, when Han thinks about “Minari,” she can’t help feel blessed by the changes it inspired in her life and career. “The film brought so much more than I anticipated or expected,” she said. “Such a gift. And now I think, what if I didn’t do this film? I can’t even imagine.”
A24 will release the “Minari” in select and virtual cinemas on Friday, February 12.
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