A Leaf in a Stream

The matriarchs of Minari—Youn Yuh-jung and Han Ye-ri—talk to Aaron Yap about chestnuts, ear-cleaning, dancing, Doctor Zhivago and their unexpected paths into acting.

When I talk to the younger generation, they start having dreams about being an actor in the sixth grade. In the sixth grade, I was just playing.” —⁠Youn Yuh-jung

A delicate cinematic braid that captures the sense of adventure, sacrifice and uncertainty of uprooting, Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari might be the closest approximation of my immigrant experience on the big screen yet. Sure, Arkansas is a world of difference from New Zealand. But those dynamics and emotional textures of a family in the process of assimilation—authentically realized by Chung—remain the same.

The film is a wonder of humane storytelling, with the American-born Chung encasing deeply personal memories in a brittle, bittersweet calibration that recalls the meditative, modest glow and touching whimsy of an Ozu or Kore-eda. As Jen writes, “To describe Minari? Being embraced in a long, warm hug.” Or perhaps, it’s like Darren says, “floating along peacefully like a leaf in a stream”.

Neither is alone in their effusive praise. Minari rapidly rose to the top of Letterboxd’s Official Top 50 of 2020, and by year’s end our community had crowned it their highest-rated film. Despite its cultural specificity—a Korean family shifting to the Ozarks in the 1980s—the film has transcended barriers and stolen hearts. Run director Aneesh Chaganty says, “I saw my dad. I saw my mom. I saw my grandma. I saw my brother. I saw me.” Iana writes, “Its portrayal of assimilation rang so true and for that, I feel personally attacked.” The versatile herb of the title, Kevin observes, is “a marker of home, of South Korea, but it can grow and propagate as long as there is water.”

Though a large portion of Minari was vividly drawn from Chung’s childhood, a few of the film’s most quietly memorable moments were contributions from its Korean-born cast.

Youn Yuh-jung as Soonja in Minari.
Youn Yuh-jung as Soonja in Minari.

Veteran actress Youn Yuh-jung, who’s extraordinary as the visiting, wily grandmother Soonja, traces the origins of the scene where she cracks open a chestnut in her mouth and hands it to seven-year-old grandson David (Alan Kim), to her time living in America. “I’ve seen one grandmother visiting at the time—we don’t have chestnuts in Florida—she brought them all the way from Korea. Actually it was worse than the scene. My friend’s mother brought [the] chestnut. She chewed it and spit it out into a spoon and shared it with her grandson. Her husband was an Irishman. He was almost shocked. We didn’t do that, but I shared that kind of thing with Isaac.”

Most viewers watching this scene will likely recoil in horror, as David does, but co-star Han Ye-ri, playing Soonja’s daughter Monica, notes the practicality of the gesture: “If you give a big chunk to children they could choke on that, so it’s natural for them to do that for their children.”

In another brief, beautifully serene scene—one that is so rarely depicted in American cinema that it’s almost stunning—Monica is seen gently cleaning David’s ears. Han came up with the idea. “Originally it was cutting the nails for David,” she says. “Cleaning your wife and husband’s ears is such a common thing in Korea. Initially the producer or somebody from the production opposed the idea because they regarded it as dangerous, but because it is something that is so common in our daily lives I thought we should go with the idea.”

Neither actress comes from a traditional movie-oriented background. With no acting ambitions, Youn began her fifty-year career with a part-time job hunt that led her to distributing gifts to an audience at a TV station. “It was freshman year from college and they gave me pretty good money. So I thought, ‘Wow, that’s good!’.”

“I’m kind of ashamed about that, as nowadays all the kids plan their future,” she says. “When I talk to the younger generation, they start having dreams about being an actor in the sixth grade. In the sixth grade, I was just playing—nothing. I didn’t plan anything. [Laughs.]”

Han Ye-ri and Noel Kate Cho in Minari.
Han Ye-ri and Noel Kate Cho in Minari.

Before acting, Ye-ri trained as a professional dancer, and while she wasn’t specifically inspired by movies to cross over into acting, she was an avid film watcher in her formative years. “Working as an actress made me realize how many films I’ve seen growing up.”

“My first memory of a non-Korean-language film left such a strong impression on me, especially the ending,” she says. “The film is called Doctor Zhivago. I saw it on TV and not in theaters. The first film I saw in theaters was Beauty and the Beast. But even growing up I remember because Koreans love films so much they would have films on TV all the time. I watched a lot of TV growing up because both my parents were busy, and in retrospect that really helped become the basis of my career. [Laughs.]”

She also grew up “taking reference from Miss Youn’s body of work to study from, as did many other actresses”. Grateful for the opportunity to work with her on Minari, Ye-ri says, “On set working with her, it made me realize how wonderful it is that this person still carries her own distinct color and scent. And seeing her taking part in this production in a foreign country—she’s over 70—it just really encouraged me that I should be more fearless like her.” She adds: “One of the things that I really want to learn from her is her sense of humor but I think I’m going to have that for my next life. [Laughs.]”

As for Youn’s adventures in early movie-going, she recalls the first Korean film she saw with her father was the 1956 historical drama Ma-ui taeja, based on a popular Korean fairy tale. “I was so scared. I cried so my father had to take me out of the theater.”

“At [the] time, we always had to watch the news on the screen before the movie. It started with a national anthem and every audience from the theater would need to stand up and pledge to the Korean flag. It’s a very stupid thing for you guys but it was like that 60 years ago.”

Han Ye-ri as Monica in Minari.
Han Ye-ri as Monica in Minari.

For Minari fans who want to discover more of Youn’s work, she recommends starting with the first movie she made with the late, great director Kim Ki-young, Woman of Fire—a remake of his own 1962 Korean classic The Housemaid. “A long time ago I couldn’t see it. Of course I first saw it when it was shown at the theater back when I was twenty. But later on we had a retrospective, so I saw that movie 50 years later. Wow, he was very genius. I was very impressed. That time we had censorship and everything but with that crisis he made that film. That was a memorable movie to [me].”

Youn admits finding it difficult to be emotionally invested watching a film starring herself, including Minari. “It’s terrible, it’s killing me,” she says. “I always think about why I did this and that scene like that. I’m just criticizing every scene so I’m not enjoying it at all.”

Asked which films she enjoys, she offers: “Some other people’s movies like Mike Leigh and Kore-eda Hirokazu. Your Chinese movies I fell in love with. Zhang Yimou when he started. Then later on when he became a big shot, I don’t enjoy [them]. [Laughs.]”

During the shoot, members of the cast and crew caught Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, 2019’s powerful, heartfelt Chinese-American immigrant story. While Youn missed it (“I was just staying home trying to memorize the lines and resting”), Ye-ri watched with interest: “That film also had a grandmother character, so did ours, and these two are completely different. But at the same time from both films you can feel the warmth and thoughtfulness of grandmothers in different ways. To me they are both very lovely films.”

Of her recent viewings, Ye-ri reveals she found Soul made her as emotional as Minari did. “It made me look back at how I live and my day. It’s not necessarily for children but I think it’s a film for adults. [Pauses.] I’m Thinking of Ending Things. I love that film also.”

Minari’ is out now in select theaters across the US and other territories, with virtual screenings available to US audiences in the A24 screening room.


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