A family story

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

by Jennie Kermode

Alan Kim, Steven Yeun, Noel Cho and Yeri Han in Minari
Alan Kim, Steven Yeun, Noel Cho and Yeri Han in Minari

This year’s Glasgow Film Festival opens with Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari, a film based on his own childhood experiences as a young Korean American boy whose father decided to move the family out into the sticks to try and make a living off the land. Shortly before Christmas I intended a press conference with Isaac at which he talked about the background to the film. Star Steven Yeun, who plays his father, was also present, along with child stars Noel Cho and Alan Kim.

“In the past, I started off my career thinking that I wanted to make films that aren't about my life, like the first film I made was in Rwanda,” said Isaac as the conversation began. “Something shifted around 2014 or 2013, around the time my daughter was born, in which I just wanted to tell a story that encapsulates a lot of things that I grew up with, a lot of things that I that I was thinking about presently in life. And maybe in 2018, so two years ago, I started an exercise in which I just started to write down a lot of memories from that time, my life. Looking at it from the point of view of the age that my daughter is, so looking at what was life like back when I was like in that range of five to seven years old. And, you know, a lot of funny things went on then, like my dad taking us to this place in the middle of nowhere, plopping us on this land with a trailer home and saying ‘This is your new home!’ with my Mom never having heard anything about what he was going to do.

Father and son
Father and son

“As I wrote down more memories, one of them was the fact that my grandmother did burn down our farm. And I just thought, wow, that these were really a wild couple of years to me, and maybe this could be shaped in this story. And so that's where I started to shift all the memories around into what I felt could be a story. I didn't want it to just be a memory piece, but to actually work as a narrative.

“It was an interesting process. And, you know, it puts you in a very vulnerable place. A lot of people wonder, ask me all sorts of questions that probably they weren't asking me a couple years ago. So yeah, that whole aspect was pretty interesting, too. But overall, I mean, it felt precious to do this and to have something that I can show to my family, both my parents in which, you know, they feel like they were seen and heard. And then also to my daughter so that she can see where we come from.”

Alan, who plays Isaac’s younger self, has been listening intently and looks like he wants to join in, but when asked what he remembers about auditioning for the film he states plainly that he remembers nothing at all.

“It wasn't important for him,” says Steven, laughing. “Now, Alan is so incredible. I didn't get to audition with too many kids. They were down to two or three kids, maybe two at the time. And they're all wonderful. But Alan came in and we improvised the scene together. And as I was improvising playing it, he was so present and so in the moment. I just I just came into it. I left the room and I came back in as Jacob. And he didn't blink an eye. He didn't stall for any anything. He just went right into it and just reacting. I think Isaac and I chatted a little bit after, but I think we all felt they were like, yeah.”

The things that brothers and sisters do
The things that brothers and sisters do

Alan, who is dressed very smartly in a grey suit and drinking from a tub of juice bigger than his head, nods sagely. Noel, who is a little older, steps in to explain how she worked alongside him.

“We spent a lot of time together on the screen so we would kind of look like brothers and sisters, and did most things that brothers and sisters would, like fight and fight and fight some more.” She laughs. “And then offscreen, we would do practically the same fight and fight. And then watch TV.” Captain Underpants was a favourite, she says.

Overcoming his shyness a bit, Alan says that he had fun making the film. His favourite moment was shooting a scene in which his character gets up to mischief with pee.

Reflecting on his own role, Steven, who became a father himself shortly before the shoot, says that helped him to find the truth in his character.

“I don't know if I'm as aware of myself in the current young father mode that I’m in, but what was really cool to connect it to was moments of my reality now, and then also subsequently, moments of my own father and my father's generation, and realising that I am my father. And perhaps the way that we – that at least I – used to view my father as a completely separate theme or idea or a time, I was able to connect with in a pretty profound way to play something like that, like him. The journey for that was pretty incredible.

The family survey their land
The family survey their land

“Jacob is an interesting character to play. I think. He has to hold a specific set of duality, which is like, both to be seen for kind of the dominant force that is really thinking about himself at times, while also showing that he loved his family. And that was a really cool thing to go through.”

“Most of the things in the film, they're based on something that happened, but as a whole, it's hard to create a story just on those things,” says Isaac. “So just the way that it's ordered, that ordering itself provides a lot of fiction. It just shifts the story away from what actually happened. But if you pick apart the little things, little details, those are based on real life.”

“I think perhaps this transcends culture, to a degree,” says Steven, “but also is magnified by Korean culture as well. Just, you know, what is your worth built on? As a father, as a man in this society? Do you know love? Or do you know love as possessiveness? Are you communicating love through through your family being a possession of yours, or are they actually being your family, that you see all separately and individually? And then also there’s, you know, Jacob's ego.

“When you think about Jacob, he's an interesting character, because he's not only trying to leave a collectivist kind of system that he's from, in Korea that he left, but then he's further trying to leave another one, when he leaves California. And so he's deeply searching for himself. And I think he doesn't have the tools to really understand who he is.

Minari poster
Minari poster

"Part of that is because of generations of trauma and the inability to communicate these things passed down, but there's always this nascent feeling, I think, that creates in people that desire to integrate, that desire to break free from some confines. And I think for Jacob, his stubbornness was, you know, it was not just a stubbornness, that is a character trait, but it was also his validation of existence. You know, I think he needed to sustain that for himself in order for him to exist for himself. That was part of the struggle.”

Asked about the film’s success at Sundance, he breaks into a grin.

“Oh, man, it's wild. I mean, I think this is a second generation Korean American kid’s dream to be able to make a film that reflects on the journey of our parents, and I think what was really wonderful about the reception was that the gambles that we took, or what felt like gambles at the time, not only paid off but actually revealed, at least to me, that there is a truer way of communicating between each other, between all of us.”

“We just didn't want this film to be something that people compartmentalise as being ‘Oh, this is a immigrant story about this director’s parents,’ or, you know, ‘it's a story that these guys are trying to speak to their parents,’ or something like that. But it felt like it needed to go to that register of creating more of a human story that could work on – I hate to say this word – but like, on a universal level, that this is reaching people, that there's something so intrinsically basic and human about it...We're glad we did it.”

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