A few years ago, for what would become his movie breakout, Steven Yeun returned to his birth country — and unlocked something within himself. The actor had just come off his landmark six-season run on The Walking Dead the previous year, as well as a small but pivotal role (written just for him) in Bong Joon Ho’s cross-continental Okja. But for the beloved 2018 Korean drama Burning, in which Yeun played an enigmatic young man with a dangerous habit — and earned career-best reviews, winning a slew of top U.S. critics’ prizes — he found himself able to really let go. “I didn’t have to uphold this weird notion that I had to explain myself in every iteration of what I said or did,” Yeun, now 36, says. “It actually took a lot of weights off of me. I didn’t even know that I had all these weights on me when I went there.”
The next movie Yeun made brought the Los Angeles-based actor back to the U.S.: Lee Isaac Chung’s autobiographical Minari, a textured portrait of a Korean-American family circa 1980. As he settled into the role of Jacob Yi, an immigrant farmer trying to provide for his family and making several crucial mistakes along the way, Yeun brought the lessons of Burning with him. “That’s something that is happening within our community,” Yeun says of Korean and Korean-American film artists. “Just understanding how to liberate a truthful human story from what seems to be a very literal construct that needs explanation of ‘why this is different.’”
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That’s where Yeun’s focus sticks as he gets to talking about this project, which swept the top prizes at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival and is expected to receive an Oscar-qualifying release via distributor A24. Minari often operates like vivid memoir, snapshots of a family’s day-to-day exuding an almost magically lifelike quality. This is what sets the movie apart — its insight into the human condition.
“We were trying to tell the story of, ‘What's it like when you wake up and you just are?’ — which is how I wake up,” says Yeun, who’s also an executive producer on the film. “I don't really wake up being like, ‘I'm a Korean-American person living in a white American world.’ I'm just like, ‘I'm up now. What do I want to eat?’ When we ignored the literal parameters, it unveiled a more truthful humanity: a story about a father, and a mother, and a family, and a son, and a grandmother, and about hardship, and about perseverance, and about faith and hope and what it takes to continue on in this difficult life.”
Yeun looks at the success of Parasite, Bong’s acclaimed masterpiece which won this year's Best Picture Oscar just weeks after Minari’s premiere, as crucial in that broader effort. “It's a journey and I do see it shifting; things like Parasite help,” he says. “It helps inform people like, ‘This is a film where it's just people being people. It just happens to be a different culture.’”
Yeun’s determined, at times misguided patriarch in Minari pulled him into a meta space of performance; the piece, shot in Oklahoma, recalled his own Michigan upbringing. The actor struggles to find the exact words. “The experience to me was in some ways deeply terrifying, and in other ways incredibly natural, and in other ways so cathartic,” Yeun says. “It was a reflection of a lot of our families.”
He continues, “It was therapeutic. It was, at times, so gratefully teaching. So many moments I thought I understood, [but] when we did the scenes, I was like, ‘Oh, I actually didn’t understand.’ I could go on for hours about all the lessons I learned.”
Minari’s first Sundance screening occurred mere hours after news of Kobe Bryant’s death broke; the movie’s journey was abruptly stalled as the COVID-19 pandemic began transforming life as we know it. Understandably, then, Yeun has been thinking about mortality a lot in the context of his new film. “In that one moment [when Kobe died], it made the stakes a little bit higher; it felt like the characters were more mortal,” he says. “Then after that, even stranger, the entire world feels mortal now. So [Minari] feels like this strange, sad, but also hopeful extension of Sundance. That feeling. I don't know.”
He trails off a bit. But perhaps all these feelings are in service of what Yeun believes works like Minari can achieve, as they appeal to our common humanity. “It’s really all the same. It’s all deeply, humanly the same,” he says. “Why don’t we just cut to that chase?”
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