The Partnership: Steven Yeun & Lee Isaac Chung Chart Their Own Course With ‘Minari,’ Examining Korean Immigrant Family’s Pursuit Of The American Dream

In Minari, writer/director Lee Isaac Chung and Steven Yeun tell the story of a Korean immigrant family risking everything in pursuit of the American dream. Jacob (Yeun) uproots his family from 1980s Los Angeles, determined to start a farm in Arkansas, while his wife Monica (Yeri Han) grows weary of his optimism in the face of isolation and dwindling funds. Meanwhile, their young son David (Alan S. Kim) bonds with Monica’s feisty mother (Yuh-jung Youn), as she distracts him from the family’s hardships and his parents’ fraying marriage.

Premiering at Sundance, the film, based on Chung’s own childhood, won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award. In conversation with Deadline, Chung and Yeun discuss Minari’s knife-sharp portrayal of an immigrant experience beset by fear, regret and devastating setbacks, but tempered by the rewards of resilience, and what rises up when we plant the seeds of hope.

DEADLINE: How long was the story for Minari in your head before you realized you needed to tell it?

LEE ISAAC CHUNG: Well, for this one, I just knew that I would probably get to it at some point, even when I was starting to get into filmmaking. Many filmmakers start off with an autobiographical film from childhood, and that’s kind of what I was thinking I would do, but other projects would just present themselves naturally in the beginning. I think I needed that time to become a father myself and to live some life and to go through ups and downs, some failures and various things, so that I could get to a point where I could write about what it was like for my parents to come to this country and the things that my dad was wrestling with, especially when I was the age that my daughter is now. In other words, for me to understand what it’s like to be a dad of a child that age as I’m trying to pursue my own career.

DEADLINE: When did you start to put the story on paper?

CHUNG: It wasn’t until 2018 that it felt like the time was right. I had taken a break from working on projects and I was really inspired by this book I read by Willa Cather, called My Ántonia. She talked about how her work really began when she stopped admiring and she started remembering. She stopped trying to emulate other writers and to do what is considered to be good work as a writer and she started to just simply remember and write from her experiences. And I thought, I haven’t done that and I need to do that with this. Otherwise, maybe I won’t even have a chance to make another film. So, this is the one where I need to just get it out, get it done and hope for the best with it.

DEADLINE: Did you feel apprehensive or vulnerable telling such a personal story?

CHUNG: Strangely, I felt a lot of apprehension about whether I was doing some kind of injustice to my parents, because I know the feeling of somebody telling a story with you as a character in it. It’s like I’m trying to tell their story in a way, but they’re not really telling it with their own voice. It’s me. It’s my perspective, so that made me really nervous. Other than that, I tried to keep some distance from reality and what actually happened so that I don’t have to try to make it so exact to what actually happened, but just to make a story and to make it entertaining. It was important for me to try to figure out a way to let the audience have a good time while watching the film. I actually enjoyed writing those parts, knowing that they are from my real life, but that they’re not exactly from my real life.

DEADLINE: Steven, because it was based on Isaac’s real life and his experience, did that responsibility and pressure weigh on you?

STEVEN YEUN: I think Isaac, especially in the way that he wrote it, created so much space. When I first read it, it didn’t feel sparse and it didn’t feel overwritten. It felt very true. It felt very honest. And because of that, I think it didn’t feel like I was having to service anything larger in regards to Isaac’s personal story. I think he really left a lot of space for us to imbue our own things. Also, I think Isaac is wise enough—I’m putting words in your mouth, so I apologize—to know that something like this has other pressures involved beyond the truth of his specific story. At least those are the pressures that I reacted to.

I appreciated that Isaac didn’t really express to me his worry about it. If anything, he really always supported me through my fears about approaching a character [when] I think a lot of Asian Americans and specifically Korean Americans have an idea of what is on their minds. So yeah, I wasn’t too worried about Isaac’s script. I was more worried about servicing Jacob correctly.

DEADLINE: Isaac, what was it about Steven that embodied the story you wanted to tell?

CHUNG: I felt like Jacob is someone who is charting his own course, and someone who’s leaving behind all these different structures, ideas and categories that he’s been placed into—whether that’s in Korea as a Korean man, or in California as this new immigrant. He’s had all this pressure on him and now he’s trying for the first time to do something that’s completely different and completely himself. I felt like Steven could understand this to the core, just based on how he’s grown up, who he is as a person and the sorts of things that he thinks about. Even noticing the types of work that he’s drawn to as an actor, as a performer. I just felt like there’s something about that in which he understands this person very intuitively.

And there was also another side to it where I just knew that what Jacob is doing is almost… laughable. It can be something that you really judge harshly for what he’s doing to his family. With the way that Steven was doing it, I felt confident that the audience would be there with him and understand him. They would still trust him and know that there’s some deeper reason for why he’s doing these things. And again, I think that’s just something that’s within him, where we just want to be with him and be alongside him for that ride and cheer for him in a way. I just thought, “Okay, he’s perfect for this,” and also I thought it was great because he’s in between the idea of being Korean and being American in the way that I am—in the way that I feel I am between David and Jacob as well. I felt like it added this layer in which I can really trust him to carry this film and that I can continue to, as much as I can as a filmmaker, express myself through this film. That I would be able to do that very collaboratively with Steven.

DEADLINE: Steven, what was the process of forming this bond to create this sense of family, especially an immigrant family?

YEUN: I think it’s really kind of a testament to Isaac, first and foremost. I think he really, really brought together the right people. I think that’s the mark of how great of a director he is. What is that adage? “Directing is 95% casting, and then 5% is the crazy difficult time making a film,” or something like that. But I think Isaac has a very honest eye. I think he can read people, see people for who they are, and he’s gracious that way. I think the people that he brought together were perfect, so when we did come together it didn’t feel like this overwrought, “We have to immerse ourselves. Let’s pretend to be a family,” or something like that.

The dynamic really worked pretty much right off the bat. With Yeri and I, we traded stories about our perspectives about who Jacob and Monica were, supplemented with also how we have lived through our own relationships. And I think the way that we left space for each other to explain and educate each other about ourselves really lent a truthful perspective, too, to just the way that Monica and Jacob miss each other, as well. And I think in that way, it allowed a nice duality for both those characters because you’re not looking at one person being objectively bad or good. It’s just they’re trying and it’s very difficult.

And then when you think about Youn Yuh-jung and her playing Soonja, that was so perfect, because YJ, she comes with a lot of power already. I remember the first time I met her, I went outside with her and just chatted with her for a little bit. And I was just like, “It’s really wonderful to have you here. It’s an honor to be able to work with you,” and she expressed really nice things to me about prior work that she’s seen me do. I think Soonja represents the eyes of Korea, and maybe the seeming sense of validation that maybe Jacob also wants to hold, which is some weird, prodigal son sense of, “I went and did this and I made myself, can you see me now?” And that energy also felt real for me as an actor to YJ. You want validation from one of the greats. And then the kids, they’re just so pure and so present and so talented.

CHUNG: I’ve got to say, Steven did quite a lot in bridging a lot of gaps on the set because I felt there was a lot demanded of him. We have actors coming in from Korea and there is a certain type of style and training there, and then we also have very seasoned American actors, like Will Patton. Then we have these kids who’ve never acted before. I was just amazed because Steven’s worked in all of those settings in one way or another, and he’s really great with improvisation. So, he had to be a glue in some ways and keep this really held together in such a deep way. So, yeah, I’m very grateful for that.

DEADLINE: Telling this story from a father’s perspective and a child’s perspective seems quite demanding. Did you feel like you were being pulled in different directions?

CHUNG: It was pretty odd to make this film. I was on set one time and I was trying to correct my production designer, Yong Ok Lee with something she had done. I said, “Well, you know, in my family, in my real life, it didn’t look like this.” I felt like that’s the trump card. I can play that card and she has to listen to me, but she just turned to me and said, “You know this is not your family. This is the Yi family. This is completely different.” And something about that really shook me and woke me up. From then on, I had that voice in my head: “This is not your family anymore. This is the Yi family and you have to service that vision.” So that distance was good throughout the whole film to have.

DEADLINE: Steven, are you familiar with rural life, like the one the Yi family experiences, or are you more of a city boy?

YEUN: Both my parents are from farming families in Korea. So, farming felt natural genetically, but I was raised in the suburbs of Michigan, so it’s not like I got to touch too much. I got to touch a lot of nature, but I didn’t get to touch too much farming per se. But yeah, I think farming was really cool, because my parents are really obsessed with farming now. They’ve turned their backyard into this giant garden where they’re growing fresh produce and sending it over to us. Their grandkids get to eat fresh cucumbers and zucchinis and things like that. I think there was a generational connection there that was really fulfilling, to want and have the same desires that my father once did. Subsequently, the metaphor of doing physical labor to the earth, and just the submission to the chaotic nature of whether you’ll succeed or not is profound. I think that this movie was special that way. There’s something really wonderful about that.

DEADLINE: How did you navigate a story about an Asian immigrant family living in a traditionally conservative town without it falling into racially-charged tropes and traps?

CHUNG: I definitely knew if I didn’t address the topic, that somehow that would seem irresponsible or that would seem strange or neglectful in some way. So, in my mind, this was really a film about a family trying to make it on the frontier, and that’s a more classic story, in that way. It was intentional on my part that it’s not new immigrants, but that this is a family that’s actually been in the U.S. for a few years, so that already creates a certain separation from it being strictly an immigrant story. And I wanted to make sure that by doing this story, we’re not just telling a story that is meant to explain who we are to white people basically; that it shouldn’t just be a film that is meant to communicate to a “white audience” and to say, “This is the struggle we went through,” or, “These are the ways in which we’ve been hurt and wronged.”

I’m not discounting any of those things or any of those realities, but I just felt like this story is more about this family and what they are going through, their perspective, and we need to be in that perspective. For them, they’re not thinking about racism all the time. Do they encounter it? Yes, they do. And when they encounter it, it’s brief and there’s a certain way that it happens in their lives. But I wanted the film to shift away from those ideas and to be more about themselves and the barriers that they have within their own families, the assimilation that they need to do within their own family. It’s not assimilation to the culture, but to each other, in a way.

DEADLINE: This is a film led by an Asian cast and the community has been behind it. And it’s another narrative to further the fact that the Asian culture is not a monolith. Steven, how did you find the synergy with Jacob, given your particular identity and experience?

YEUN: I think it felt refreshing. When I wake up I don’t juxtapose myself to whiteness ever really, until I’m outside and I’m reminded at times. It felt nice to be able to express myself in a way that I feel naturally on the daily. So, for Jacob, the realization that, in some ways, I am him or I am my father, or I can relate to that on a human level was deeply fulfilling because oftentimes Asian American actors don’t get to access things like that. Usually, they’re there to fulfill the narrative and sometimes, even worse, they’re there to fulfill a quota.

To be able to tell a story about the inner life of who we are is, to me, amazing. That’s the dream of an actor, to fill their body with intention and purposefulness and reality and truth, instead of doing the mental and physical gymnastics, like a circus mimicry of how we perceive the world and literally talk about the world. With Jacob, I got to access him on why he does this thing. What he’s after and who he’s wrestling with. I got to access him through those touch points, as opposed to, what is an Asian man in America.

DEADLINE: From The Walking Dead to Okja to Sorry to Bother You, you’ve been in a diverse array of films and TV. But how do you think the character of Jacob fits into where you are at right now with your career?

YEUN: I think he’s a part of a personal journey that I’m on. In some ways, I have to recognize the massive privilege that I have, that I get to find myself through this medium this way. Who gets to do that? Not many people.

I almost cried when Isaac told you about why he cast me, because I hadn’t heard that before and it’s so deeply in line with how I feel. It just makes me respect your eye so much more, Isaac. I think all of us want to be seen—not just be seen by others, but also see ourselves a little bit clearer. For me, the work has really just been finding and mining deeper and deeper who I am. How I do that is I get to work in these films that really access an individual character. It’s not always in service of this larger dynamic. It’s always in service to the story, which is great, but I’m really attracted to characters that are isolated, that are their own thing. It’s fulfilling to me as an actor to find those things.

Jacob feels different. I think for me, I’m really attracted to something that I might be thinking about or working through. And then I magically, wonderfully get a script out of thin air where it’s like, “Here’s one,” and I’m like, “Oh, that’s the one. I’ve got to do that one.” That’s where I feel so lucky. So, moving forward, I think it’s that. The goal is to really see myself a little bit clearer, just so that I can play my part a little bit better in this life.

DEADLINE: Do you think the American dream and an immigrant story are one and the same?

YEUN: I heard this really cool quote from another interview where someone said that all immigrants are artists, and that was very profound to me because I realize how true that is—to make something from nothing. America is the land of immigrants. It is an immigrant nation. The initial outset was to leave a system behind to create something brand new. We find ourselves a couple hundred years into this and trying to shake ourselves awake from the way that perhaps the larger section of the country has rooted itself—in its comfort in generations, in some way—and then you have these beautiful images and examples of people that are doing it now.

I feel like that’s ultimately what makes America beautiful. I don’t know if there’s an intrinsic difference. There are a lot of nuances between those. I don’t know if I can make a statement like that. I think on a larger note, it feels like the story of Minari, the story of Jacob—that desire to make a life for themselves dictated by our own terms—that’s the beauty of America. It’s what a lot of us, if not all of us, are hoping for: to just make your own life. Whether you have those opportunities or not is a different story.

CHUNG: I definitely echo all of that. It’s interesting. I think we just have to be mindful of what that definition of an American dream is. I think we are faced with a lot of definitions of that that are, frankly, unhealthy. I feel we see them crumbling right now in this country, letting people down in a way. I like the way Steven says it. In a way, we’re all immigrants here, and we’re all trying to create a new reality, and there’s a good way to do that. There are ways that are only going to disappoint us, and hopefully that’s something that Minari is talking about.

YEUN: I’ve been thinking a lot about how Asian Americans in the past have been required to define themselves. It’s always the best version of how we define ourselves happens to be that we’re caught between two places. While that is in some ways true, it feels this generation and on is really more about the space that we occupy ourselves, and less about being trapped by anything. Really, we’re just in our own thing. We’re in our own unique culture. There are things about the motherland that we can’t touch in the same ways and they’ll remind you of that, whenever you go back there. If you spend more than two weeks there, they’ll be like, “Hey, you’re an American.” Then you come here, and you’re made to perform your culture so that you can justify why you’re here. I think there’s something about this generation that there’s a lot of power in that, and I’m glad to have been part of this film. I’m so glad that Isaac wrote this so honestly and truthfully, because we’re not trying to ignore our culture, or where we came from, or who we are now, but rather just to plant a flag in some way, at least for me, about where we’re at now and what we are now. There’s something really beautiful about that. So, I’ve been really happy to see Asian American cinema and art, in general, really start to flourish. That’s been really wonderful.

DEADLINE: How has the meaning of this movie changed for both of you from when you were filming it, to when it premiered at Sundance, to now, when the world is going through major changes?

YEUN: I’d love to hear Isaac’s perspective about this too, but when we were in the middle of shooting it, it just felt beautiful. It felt really wonderful. It felt like we were all coming together for something, and there was no way of knowing how it was going to go, but it just kept going. If we could compile all the stories of the beautiful nature by which films realize themselves, the people that get involved, the people in the periphery that sometimes don’t get seen ultimately in the end, but they’re so integral to the process. So many things like that happened. So many magical moments that were kismet, but also created because everybody was focused on making something great.

There was that, but when it premiered, that was crazy. The first night of our premiere was the same day that Kobe [Bryant] died. Isaac and I talked about it and he put it the best way. He was like, “There’s a mortality to it.” The stakes felt heightened because someone as large as that in life had perished in such a crazy way. And then, further, to have the rumblings of coronavirus… there just was this deep sense of mortality that was starting to cook under the surface.

As we cascade into now, to me, Minari is more profound than ever. It feels more real than ever. Because in some ways, everybody’s barn has burned down and all that’s really left is the people that are around you—the ones that helped you make all of this together.

The way it continues to cascade for me is that I came to at least this understanding of the lessons that Jacob needs to learn in the midst of his story. But even as we talk about this movie on a press tour, it’s focused on a certain select few individuals, namely myself. There’s something about getting out of the way too, and stepping aside, and really talking about all the people that got to make this—not just the cast and the crew and Isaac’s wonderful direction, but all the people in Oklahoma that came to make this and did it respectfully, in a way that infused them into the project, as opposed to othering themselves, because they didn’t feel part of the culture. They were just connecting to it on a human level.

And then we had this woman named Stephanie who just appeared out of thin air in some ways with YJ, and helped us navigate so many cultural language things. And then we had this woman named Jenny [Tsiakals] who I got to meet a week before I started. She owns a vintage shop in LA called Please and Thank You and she’s helped us source so much for Minari in [terms of] its authenticity and its clothing. When I think about all those things, this movie really just brought the best of us all together. I get to speak about it during the press tour, but then I look back and I’m like, “Oh my gosh, I’m standing on a bunch of people, an entire set of people helped realize this thing.”

CHUNG: Yeah. I mean on that note, I hope that it offers some kind of hope or something to have after everything that’s happened this year. It’s so easy to be trite about everything that’s happened, but I think this film is born of a true pain, in a way, that I feel I’ve wrestled with in my own life, but then also a lot of joy, and a lot of hope that I feel I’ve been blessed with on the other side of that. I watched the film again, for our HD master check-through in the middle of this entire virus thing, and there’s a shot towards the end of the movie with the family sleeping on the floor together. It felt so poetic and almost a prayer when I saw it. That’s what I want for all of us. That we’re all there and we’ve all survived. We’re together.

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