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‘Minari’ Broke New Ground for Storytellers of Color, But Creatives Don’t Want to Be Pigeonholed

The Oscar-nominated film navigates the immigrant American journey, but writer-director Lee Isaac Chung, producer Christina Oh and Steven Yeun emphasize its themes are broader than the Asian American experience: "We were just trying to tell something honest."

It was a church scene that first caught producer Christina Oh’s attention when she was introduced to the Minari script in February 2019 by the film’s future star, Steven Yeun. In the handful of pages that he showed her, a white girl of primary-school age approaches Anne (Noel Kate Cho), the young daughter of a Korean American family that has just moved from California to rural Arkansas to chase a homesteading dream. It’s the Yi family’s first Sunday at a white church, and everyone means well, even if they don’t know how to show it. “Can you stop me if I say something in your language?” the white girl asks Anne by the post-service buffet. Out comes a stream of gibberish — “chinga-chinga-chon, chama-chama-choo” — that Anne politely endures, then indulges. It’s a kind of racism that’s still underdiscussed — accidental, almost benign, yet pervasive and unmistakable — and writer-director Lee Isaac Chung’s acuity and generosity struck Oh as something different. “It was a new depiction of our existence among white people,” she recalls thinking. “It was done in a way that didn’t villainize anyone.”

Within a couple of days, Chung’s full screenplay — in which Jacob (Yeun), his wife, Monica (Yeri Han), and their children are joined on their nascent farm by the latter’s sprightly, coarse-tongued grandmother (played by revered Korean actress Yuh-Jung Youn) — landed on Oh’s desk. “I read it, and I was so crazy moved by it,” the Plan B producer says of the loosely autobiographical drama. “It had so many beats of my life and in a way that I didn’t ever think anyone else understood, like your grandma coming [from Korea] and bringing bags of myulchi [dried anchovies] and gochugaru [red chili pepper flakes].” The scene with the two girls that had captivated Oh had been pulled from real life, too — it happened to Chung’s sister Leisle at one of the two churches the siblings had attended as children.

At the same time, Yeun, Chung and Oh take care to note in conversations with THR that their film — which has garnered six Oscar nominations (including for best picture), SAG and BAFTA victories for scene-stealing supporting actress Youn and a controversial Golden Globe win for best foreign-language film — deserves to be considered as more than an Asian American movie. They seemed caught in an age-old Hollywood trap that’s persisted during the current “diversity boom,” one that filmmakers of color who have mined their personal histories and proudly showcased cultural authenticity are penned into when their work finds success in the mainstream: how to speak to the specificity of their experience while not having their movies reduced solely to it. Minari tried to see the humanity in everyone. Could the world see the humanity in Minari?

So far, the answer seems to be yes. Since its debut at Sundance 2020, where it quickly became a word-of-mouth sensation, the 1980s-set family portrait has only gained steam as an awards contender. Yeun, 37, who rose to prominence as fan favorite Glenn Rhee on The Walking Dead and earned critical accolades for his supporting turn in Lee Chang-dong’s class-resentment drama Burning, became the first-ever Asian American nominated for a best actor Oscar for his restrained but passionate performance. Notably, with Chadwick Boseman’s death, Yeun is the only living American actor (all of the other nominees are British) competing in his category.

Steven Yeun

Chung and Oh made history, too: 2021 was the first year that two filmmakers of Asian descent were nominated for best director, and Chung, 42, was one of them (the other is Nomadland auteur Chloé Zhao). And among the handful of producers to be the sole nominee for the best picture prize — an increasingly rare distinction — Oh, who is in her “early- to-mid-” 30s, is the first woman of color to join their ranks. The other Oscar nominations went to Chung for best original screenplay, Youn for best supporting actress and composer Emile Mosseri for best original score. All are first-time nominees.

None of Minari‘s central trio currently belongs to the Academy. “Feels kind of appropriate, to be quite honest,” says Chung. “We’re not the cool kids,” he chuckles, to the other two’s agreement. (As nominees, they since have been asked and intend to join their respective voting groups.) “Working with each other always felt like a little bit outside,” adds Yeun. “Not that being a part of the Academy would have necessarily compromised it, but we were just trying to tell something honest.”

***

Chung was working in South Korea as a professor of film history and theory when Oh first reached out to him in March 2019 after reading his script. Just four months later, filming began. Fall is tornado season in Oklahoma, the child actors only had the summer months to shoot, and another actor had a project shooting in August, so by July, the 25-day production had started, with Harry Yoon editing the movie as it was being filmed. (Yoon was hired in part because his fluency in Korean meant he didn’t have to work with a translator, especially when gauging performances.)

The first day of filming took place during a record-breaking heat wave, inside a period-appropriate trailer with an ancient air conditioner. “It would take an hour to drop two degrees, and then we’d have to turn it off because it was so loud,” recalls Oh. (Financier and distributor A24 eventually paid for modern cooling units that made the trailer hospitable between takes. )

Isaac Chung

Less than a year after Oh first read the script, Minari would debut at Park City. “From a producorial standpoint,” she says, the film’s breakneck preproduction schedule was “crazy.” She credits the movie’s existence to Chung, whom she calls “a producer’s dream.” “People think leaders need to be these rambunctious, aggressive people,” she observes, but Chung brought the cast and crew together through his kindness and thoughtfulness. “That really takes great leadership,” she says. They’re planning on a second collaboration, this time a “sweeping love story” that takes place in New York and Hong Kong.

Despite the rapturous reviews that followed the Sundance premiere, a familiar cynicism set in among Asian American viewers that seemed well earned when this year’s Globe nominations were announced. Minari‘s placement in best foreign-language film (per the qualification that more than half the dialogue was not in English) was compared by critics to Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. The 2009 film also contained dialogue that was less than 50 percent in English but had been nominated for best drama instead. Making matters worse, the “foreign language” phrasing played into historical stereotypes of Asian immigrants and their descendants as the “perpetual foreigners” of America. It didn’t help that the lack of Globe nods for the film’s ensemble reopened wounds about the continued lack of recognition for performers of Asian descent by the industry, even in feted productions like Parasite and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which were nominated for six and 10 Academy Awards, respectively, but none for acting.

Christina Oh

But Minari has kept surprising. “This thing keeps dictating its own terms,” says Yeun. He and Youn were nominated for Hollywood’s top prize, and even 8-year-old newcomer Alan S. Kim (who plays the Yis’ younger child, David) now has enough accolades to fill a small trophy case. Asian American films are generally met with indifference in Asia, where the concerns of the diaspora seem remote, but Minari has topped the South Korean box office, becoming the third-highest-grossing film of the year so far, perhaps due to its laurels stateside. Still, the people whose opinions probably matter most to Yeun, Chung and Oh are their parents’, as their film is in many ways an homage to them.

***

Minari tells the tale of Jacob, an immigrant who wants to forge his own path in America, frustrating his wife, Monica, with the financial risk of starting a farm and possibly endangering the health of their young son, David, who has heart murmurs, by choosing to live so far away from the nearest hospital. Jacob and Monica took a great leap of faith in migrating from South Korea to the U.S., but Jacob then forces his family into a just-as-scary leap by straying beyond the immigrant enclaves in California and even the Korean American churches nearby in Arkansas. Chung, who also suffered from heart murmurs as a child, was inspired by his father’s search for a piece of land in the country he wanted to make his own as well as his own guilt about pursuing his dreams in a field as precarious and unpredictable as filmmaking.

Until their own leaps into the entertainment industry, though, Yeun, Chung and Oh enjoyed remarkably similar South Korean American upbringings. All grew up the children of entrepreneurs, were devout in their faith and considered careers in medicine or law before finding their callings.

Yeun came of age in Michigan, where his parents, like many other Korean American immigrants, owned a beauty-supply store. The most openly philosophical of the three, he caught the performance bug first through his church’s praise band, then through comedy at Kalamazoo College, which he got into with the help of dormmate Caycee Klepper, the younger sister of The Daily Show correspondent Jordan Klepper. Not seeing a path to Saturday Night Live — it would be nearly two decades before the NBC sketch show hired Bowen Yang — Yeun pivoted toward dramatic acting and landed the role of Glenn on The Walking Dead on just his second audition in L.A.

Yeun’s rise in visibility has led to a kind of cultural leadership within Asian American circles. He endorsed Andrew Yang for the 2020 Democratic primaries and, about the recent attacks on Asians across the country, he tweeted: “We belong here. Don’t ever think otherwise.” Asked about his reactions to the Atlanta shootings in March that killed six Asian women at three Asian-owned spas, Yeun granted that the collective response to the event allowed Asian Americans to not feel “alone” in our grief and historical invisibility. He hoped this moment would bring about “not a galvanization of another tribe but an understanding of the deep humanity that we all share.”

Similarly, Yeun doesn’t seem particularly thrilled about his status as the first Asian American nominee for the best actor Oscar. “If I step out of myself and see what that moment might mean beyond just me,” he remarks, “it’s cool that we get to establish new ground and that young Asian American kids can feel like this is possible for them, too.” But personally, he confesses, “I’m just not reactive to it in any direction.” He’s leery that such a high-profile achievement might end up a kind of burden, in which people view him as an “Asian American actor” first and “actor” second. “Sometimes a narrative around [identity] ensnares [you] and places [you] in a weird box that we have to then crawl back out of,” he sighs. He feels similarly about Minari, which he calls “one facet of Asian America.” “It doesn’t speak for all of it,” he says. “It might even just speak for this one family, you know?”

Isaac Chung on set with (foreground) Steven Yeun and Will Patton, who plays a religious neighbor.

Yeun is also tired of being asked why there hasn’t been an Asian American best actor nominee before. “I’m just like, ‘That’s not my problem,’ ” he says, his tone sharpening. “I’m here to do me, and if that presents to you a solve for that problem, that’s great, but that doesn’t absolve anybody of anything. I’m just doing what I’m doing, and you guys deal with that.”

If Yeun has enjoyed what looks like, at least from the outside, a fairly charmed acting career, especially for an Asian American artist, Chung is in many ways his opposite. Yeun is his cousin by marriage (though they didn’t really know each other before making the movie), but while the actor’s a talker, Chung’s a listener. “There’s just this space that he provides” to others, says Yeun. “He’s more quiet, and I wonder if you have to be, to be that open and wide.”

As a child, Chung fled the tensions within his home by finding refuge outdoors — on a bike, with his dog, sometimes bringing home dinner after fishing by a pond. “But it’s Arkansas,” he jokes, “so I’d come home with 10 ticks on me. More hillbilly than idyllic.” Chung went to two churches growing up: a Korean American one on Saturdays with his parents, whose work as chicken sexers (sorting male chicks from female ones) required them to work on the Sabbath, and on Sundays a white one, where he and his sister were sent to acquire language skills. “I learned all my English from that Sunday Baptist preacher,” he says. When asked why he doesn’t have an Arkansas accent, he says, laughing, “It comes out sometimes.”

Chung hung out with the drama kids at school, but he wouldn’t write his first screenplay until he was a senior at Yale. Though “all the professors were joyfully telling me how bad my writing was,” he says, he decided to take a film class with a screenwriting component as a “reward” to himself before graduation. “I just couldn’t believe how much I loved it,” he marvels. “It was like someone who has the ocean in their genes suddenly finding themselves at the ocean.” He stopped applying to med schools and informed his parents that he was going to try for film schools instead — then got into none of them. On a disastrous family trip to Disney World, his parents “berated me and told me what a waste I’m making of my life” at each long line, tirades interrupted by “a minute-long ride where I sat by myself.” Chung pursued a directing career anyway, making five features with “ultra-low budgets, shooting for 300 grand or less,” even self-financing some of his films. His debut feature was barely released, and none of the next four made much of a splash. Just before Minari was greenlit, he’d made peace that his filmmaking career had probably come to an end.

Producer Oh and Chung at the Sundance Film Festival Awards Night Ceremony

“I’ve gone through a lot of disappointments in my career,” Chung shares, “but then I went through a thing where I actually embraced how my life had gone, and that’s all embedded into [Minari].” He continues: “That’s what it’s all about. It’s not about a person succeeding. It’s about a person being reborn outside of that success.” Those early setbacks have shaped his reaction to all the awards attention. “I don’t want to sound like I’m not grateful, but I feel like it doesn’t define the film,” he adds. “There was a time in my life where that mattered a lot to me, and I got burned by that. Now I know that that stuff in the end doesn’t really matter.” He shrugs, “We spoke from a very specific, personal place, and it’s up to people to judge it the way that they want.”

For Chung, the personal trumps every other way of seeing the film, including race. “There was never a point,” he says, “where I thought, ‘I’m going to do something Asian American.’ ” He likens the film’s racial and immigrant themes to the role that Christianity plays in the script — sincere and exploratory but hardly all-encompassing. “The film wrestles with faith, and I’m a person of faith, but I never set out thinking, ‘I’m going to make a film about faith.’ ” In the same way, he says, “It’s more like, ‘I’m going to do something personal and I am Asian American, so that’s going to come about.’ “

Chung is more interested in his tweaks to screenwriting tropes. His ensemble-focused narrative, for example, represents an urgent departure from the “hero’s journey” or “individual conquest” model that serves as the core of so many screenplays. “With this one, the challenge of it was to try to tell a story in which it’s more about vectors of relationships that you’re equally invested in,” he says. Minari feels so accomplished in part because the relationships among the family members — between Jacob and Monica, David and his grandmother — are so layered and detailed, all while exploring the question of how much one member of a family should be allowed to pursue a dream that imperils or isolates the others. Chung credits his wife, Valerie, a mental-health therapist, for helping him reorient his imagination by leaning away from individual stakes and toward the “multiple perspectives in a whole.”

***

Of the three, Oh perhaps had the least likely path to Hollywood. Growing up in suburban Massachusetts and urban Arizona, she wasn’t allowed to watch many movies or TV shows, even though — as she later would find out — her own father had gone to film school to become a director before immigrating to the States. Oh has a sly and quick wit, as well as an independent streak that’s traceable to her early years as a latchkey kid. Her parents worked long hours at their dry-cleaning business, which eventually did mean sneaking in some television, like The X-Files, which she credits for her love of genre. (“[Onetime X-Files writer] Vince Gilligan is just a genius,” she crows. “I’d love to work with him someday.”) Before she became an Oscar nominee, she was just another Comic-Con nerd who slept outside Hall H in line.

As a student at the University of Arizona, Oh ended up in the film program after applying with an “If I get in, I’ll try it” attitude, then chose the producing track because it meant graduating faster. In the first two and a half years of her decade at Plan B, Oh served as co-president Dede Gardner’s assistant, then got her producing start working with a director whose films her dad had introduced her to in college: Bong Joon Ho. Okja, the bilingual 2017 Netflix film Bong made immediately before Parasite, is how Oh met Yeun, who has a supporting part in the E.T.-inspired animal-rights action-adventure. Oh then worked on a small string of awards contenders and art house darlings: Vice, Ad Astra and The Last Black Man in San Francisco. (She is unrelated to actress Sandra Oh.)

After Okja, Oh was flooded with “Asian stuff” and sometimes sent books or scripts that “just happened to have some Asian character in it.” After a certain degree of success, Oh says, people “see you as a door to reaching something.” A deep ambivalence emerged. She couldn’t help feeling “a weird bit of pressure because you are an Asian American and you want to support the cause and you want to get people’s voices out there,” yet “part of me was really resistant to doing anything Asian because, for me, it didn’t feel authentic,” she says. “I don’t walk around being like, ‘I’m the Asian producer.’ I wanted to tell stories that I really connected with.”

Isaac Chung with the cast of Minari: Noel Kate Cho, Alan S. Kim, Yeri Han, Yeun and Yuh-Jung Youn.

For both Chung and Oh, Minari was their first Asian American project. “She made this very personal for herself,” Chung says of Oh’s contributions. Afraid a Korean-heavy movie wouldn’t sell, Chung originally had written a screenplay with much more English-language dialogue. “But Christina really fought” for more Korean, he recalls, partly because she, Chung and Yeun all had grown up speaking a lot of it at home. “Let’s do it the way that we know it,” he remembers her saying.

Oh says she’s received only unconditional support from Plan B heads Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner while working on Minari. Yet she still found “mind-boggling” their graciousness in “giving credit” when it came to her sole best picture nomination. “It’s incredibly rare,” she continues, “for people that work in this sort of structure to be honest about their contributions. And they were incredibly instrumental in setting it up [at A24, which also released Plan B’s Moonlight]. But they were honest in terms of who produced the film on the ground. It was like, ‘This was all you.’ I could never ask for more supportive and thoughtful partners.”

***

Asian American stories tend to be dominated by the second-generation perspective. Crazy Rich Asians, The Farewell, Master of None and The Big Sick all follow the trend of earlier touchstones like Better Luck Tomorrow and The Joy Luck Club in highlighting generational clashes or familial debts. It’s an understandable phenomenon — it’s the writers and performers who’ve grown up in America who’ve largely gotten the opportunities to give voice to their experiences and their communities. But that context also makes a film like Minari — which primarily focuses on first-generation immigrants Jacob and Monica — fairly distinct in the century-old but oft-ignored canon of Asian American cinema.

Yeun saw in the Minari script an idea that aligned with his own theories about being the child of immigrants. “To seek our generation’s liberation,” he says, “we need to liberate our parents’ generation first from our own minds.” Growing up, he’d felt a certain “shame” about his parents’ “foreignness.” “Why don’t we have a standard American life?” he had wondered. “Why aren’t we going on vacations? Why don’t we have a dog?” When he grew older, he says, “the shame manifested in a different way, which was either lionizing them for their sacrifice or infantilizing them for what I perceived as their inability to navigate this place. I often forget they’ve been here just as long as I have, if not longer. They were here when it was even harder. And they’re fine.”

One consequence of playing the first-generation character, he says, is reflecting on that personal struggle to perceive his elders as well-rounded human beings: “Do we see them clearly, or do we see them as some outside force that keeps us from feeling full in this country?” He adds, “Once I humanize my parents to see them in their fullness, then maybe I can let go of that shame.”

As for Chung’s, Oh’s and Yeun’s actual parents, Minari ended up forging a “super-friendship” among them. The trio invited their parents to the film’s world premiere at Sundance, where they were housed in condos right by one another. “They all hung out,” recalls Oh. “They would stay up late and have tea and snacks and talk.” The older generation was giddy to partake in their children’s achievements and to meet Youn. The bonding was followed by an emotional premiere. Chung, who had told his parents little about the film he’d made about their lives and hadn’t allowed them to visit the set, was relieved when they told him after the screening that they now realize he understands what they had gone through all those years ago.

Conversations among the parents have continued; Yeun’s and Chung’s parents are even planning a hiking trip together to Colorado. Naturally, whatever the older generation discuss is relayed back to the trio. Recently, Chung had texted Oh, in a seeming groan, “My mom and your mom are best friends.” Together, the matriarchs made a pact: “They both agreed not to expect an Oscar because he had accomplished enough.” Oh adds with a laugh, “And that was the most Korean mom thing ever.”

The Hollywood Reporter Issue 14 - Steven Yeun, Isaac Chung, and Christina Oh Photographed by Raul Romo

Photographed by Raul Romo Styling by Christopher Kim
Yeun grooming by Hee Soo Kwon for Dior Beauty at The Rex Agency. Chung grooming by Sonia Lee for Alba 1913 at Exclusive Artists. Oh hair by Kat Thompson, and makeup by Toby Fleischman.

Fashion credits:
Group and Yeun, Oh solo: On Yeun: Fendi shirt, Hanes Tank, Officine Generale pants, Giorgio Armani shoes, David Yurman necklace, Cartier watch. On Chung: Lemaire coat, COS sweater, FRAME Trousers, Frye shoes. On Oh: Prada shirt, Lemaire jacket, Frame jeans, Koio shoes, David Yurman ring, Grace Lee earrings.
Chung solo: Mr. P sweater, Lemaire pants, Thousand Fell shoes.

A version of this story first appeared in the April 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.