Arts

Minari star Steven Yeun and writer/director Lee Isaac Chung on the success of the multi-Oscar nominated drama

Critically acclaimed film Minari centres on a Korean-American family who settle in rural Arkansas. Laura Harding speaks to star Steven Yeun and writer/director Lee Isaac Chung about the multi-Oscar nominated drama...

Minari: Yeri Han as Monica, Steven Yeun as Jacob
Laura Harding

STEVEN Yeun has made a string of interesting and unexpected choices since he left the show that made him a star. The Korean-born actor exited the hit horror drama The Walking Dead in 2016 after six series in the role as Glenn Rhee.

Since then he has appeared in the Netflix action adventure Okja, the searing satire Sorry To Bother You, and the critically acclaimed Korean drama Burning. But none have felt quite so personal and resonant as his latest film Minari, a touching and poignant family drama based on writer/director Lee Isaac Chung's childhood, which has been nominated for six Oscars, including best picture, best actor for Yeun and best director for Chung, as well as six Baftas.

"This film has been a ride and a journey," says 37-year-old Yeun.

"And it dictates its own terms and it's felt like that since the beginning so it's been really cool to see everybody be seen."

Told in Korean and English and set in the 1980s, the film is inspired by Chung's parents' move from South Korea to America, and follows the Yi family as they attempt to build a life for themselves on a farm in Arkansas.

"I think when I first read it, it was the simplicity of how honest it was and how truthful it felt," Yeun reflects.

"I didn't live Isaac's life but when I read it I was like 'Wow, I relate to this so much.'

"He wrote it in a way that felt like it wasn't aware of itself, Isaac wasn't aware of himself in the words, it was just what happened. And I think to read an account of what just happened is so freeing in that way.

"I think also coming from an Asian American actor's perspective, that is one of the first scripts that I've read about an experience that I can relate to that didn't explain itself, and it was just confident in its own point of view and that is deeply something that I really wanted to say."

Asian-American leading men in Hollywood are still very few and far between, but Yeun tries not to let the pressure of representation play on his mind too much.

"I wish I could say I had a very 'aware' calculation of how to approach this," he admits, "but I do in hindsight. I think I can diagnose what has happened in hindsight.

"Having experienced it, I don't like doing things that I don't want to do. And I like doing things that I do want to do and there is something about when I read something I am attracted to and say I want to do that.

"I've done plenty of things I don't want to do and whenever I do those things I've felt the dissonance of feeling, like maybe I shouldn't have done this and I'm not having a good time.

"I've just been trying to be honest with myself and I carry with me multitudes, I'm so many things, as we all are, so the representation is something that I'm aware of but it's not something that I hold as a part of the way that I make decisions.

"I just kind of speak from my own point of view and humanity and I think all the other things kind of service themselves as I do that. So I've just been trying to be me as much as I can."

The film is Chung's fifth, but the first time he has told a personal story, seen through the eyes of Yeun's character Jacob's young son, David, played by eight-year-old Alan Kim who is also nominated for a Bafta.

"It felt timely when I wrote it because I was about to move to Korea," Chung recalls," and I remembered back to when my dad was my age, he moved us to that farm in Arkansas and my daughter was the age that I was when we moved to that farm.

"It felt like we had reached this point where I was taking the same journey. Well, not exactly the same, but there was something similar going on, of trying to start something new.

"That felt like a good vehicle for the story to really mine that time in my life and to figure out more about my own dad and think a lot more about the perspective that my daughter has on life now.

"I decided to let the story really contain a lot of the stuff that I was feeling myself as a father and as a husband, so it just became very deeply personal film, probably the most personal I've been with anything that I've made and it just felt like it was the right time to do that."

And while Chung's is an American story, perhaps the most American it is possible to be – the pursuit of the American Dream – it hasn't always been treated as such. When it competed at the Golden Globes, it was only eligible in one category – foreign language film.

It won the prize, and in Chung's acceptance speech, which went viral because of the presence of his adorable young daughter, he made the pointed remark that it goes "deeper than any language".

Looking back on the night of the awards show now, Chung is frank.

"I can't help but contain some of the sorrow and disappointment that many Asian Americans naturally feel in situations like this, especially at a time where we are having a lot of increase in hate crimes and discriminations happening against Asians right now.

"I have a fatigue about that to be honest and I was trying to figure out how to speak to that, and at the same time not to say that 'Hey, I deserve to be awarded best picture.' That is not what I wanted that moment to be about, I just felt like more I wanted to speak to what is my actual hope.

"Two hours before we went on my daughter told me she wants to sit by me and I had no idea she was going to do that. I thought 'Ok if I win this thing there is a lot of pressure to say something about all this stuff, but I also have my daughter next to me and I want to say something that is really for her as well'.

"That is why I re-wrote what I might say and I will be honest, there was a part of me that was kind of hoping something else would win, because I was a nervous wreck – but just the fact it all came together like that without me predicting it, it's just another part of this film.

"A lot of things keep happening with this film that are beyond my real control and I feel like I've constantly been submitting to this film as something that is bigger than I am, so I am grateful that at that very moment I was able to express something that I feel speaks to an idea that transcends the Golden Globes and that category.

"Really, it's about love and that transcends all those things and I hope we all learn that."

:: Minari is available on demand now and will be at drive-in cinemas from April 12 and cinemas from May 17.

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