Like minari itself, these Korean actresses thrive in a new environment
“Minari” is a movie that upends expectations, focusing on a Korean family that relocates to Arkansas to become farmers. But that’s just the start — wait until Grandma arrives. The film, which is based on director Lee Isaac Chung’s own experiences, introduces to American audiences veteran actress Yuh-jung Youn (“Call me YJ”) as wrestling-loving, card-playing grandma Soonja, and Yeri Han as the dubious but supportive wife and mother, Monica. Both Zoomed in from South Korea to speak with The Envelope, Han with the aid of a translator.
YJ, you started acting in South Korea in the 1960s; Yeri, your career is much shorter than hers. So, was it intimidating to meet this veteran, beloved actress? Was it like an American encountering Meryl Streep?
YJ: One correction: I’m not Meryl Streep. I’m Yuh-jung!
Yeri Han: I first met YJ at an after-party for this indie short film I had done. I gathered up my courage to ask YJ for a drink, because in Korea if you respect or admire someone, you ask them to get a drink for you. I told her I would remember this day for a long time.
YJ: You make me [a] monster.
Han: No, I watched YJ on the phone since I was little. I was nervous to work with her. Steven [Yuen, costar] was nervous as well. Because YJ has this way of getting straight to the point and knowing the essence of things, so it’s impossible to lie in front of her. I also admire the sense of humor that she has. For me to have that sense of humor, I just have to be born again.
YJ: If she becomes born again, that means she will become Jesus.
In “Minari,” Soonja wasn’t a stereotypical harridan or there just to make life difficult for the parents. Was it important for you, YJ, to avoid playing a stereotype?
YJ: I’ve played so many roles during the 50 years [of my career]. So now I became very brave and [an] undaunted lady. So, when I take a role, if I like it … I’m very simple. I’m not afraid of anything. My first worry was, is it a portrait of Isaac’s grandmother? So, my first question to Isaac was, “Should I imitate your grandmother?” And he said, “No, you don’t have to.” So I had the freedom from him … I can use my imagination. I give A-plus to Isaac.
Yeri, did you meet Isaac’s mother before playing her in the film?
Han: I met Isaac’s mother for the first time at the Sundance Film Festival. I thought about my mother, her siblings, my aunts and my own grandmother. Perhaps it’s because I grew up in the countryside, but they still carry on with the older ways of living. I thought about how they live their own lives, how they raised children. I kept asking why did they in the end still remain with the family, even to this day, and I thought it was their own way of carrying love.
Another way this film may surprise audiences is it isn’t an immigrant story they may have seen before.
YJ: You’re right. Most Korean immigrant families owned wig shops; I lived in the States in the 1970s, and most of them were dealing with wigs — not farmers. The beauty of this movie is usually when we make a film about immigrant stories, [it’s often about] white people discriminating, and the racism things. But the world is changing. Let’s live together, not “You are not better than us” or “We are not better than you.” We are all the same. That’s the beauty of this movie.
Han: I agree. Anyone who looks back on their childhood will find a piece of it in this film.
The family is very specific, but their experience with one another is universal, isn’t it?
Han: Soonja brings traditional herbal medicine and brews the medicine herself so she can give it to her grandson. I’m not sure how grandmothers are in the States, but in Korea, they tend to make everything themselves for their children and grandchildren.
YJ: To me, the basic heart is the same — nonwhite people or white people, all the same. You remember your grandmother, right? Grandma’s love is the same. Human love is — sometimes we have a different eating habit or some relationship is a little bit different — but basically, all grandmas’ love is the same. It’s all equal.
Why “minari,” anyway? I know it’s a plant grown in Korea that’s edible, and Soonja plants it near the water in Arkansas — but what’s the significance in naming the entire film after it?
YJ: In the film, the fire destroys everything — but the minari will survive. Isaac found out later, after he grew up and went to visit his farm. Everything was gone, but the minari was still growing in the wild.
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