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Steven Yeun on ‘Minari’ and seeing Asian America as its own third culture



Steven Yeun has seen your outcry over “Minari”‘s being placed in the foreign language film category at the Golden Globes, and he is appreciative.

In many ways, the film and the ensuing protest highlight what many people think is the Asian American experience — walking the line between two cultures and not having a solid footing in either. But Yeun said the reality is more complicated — that Asian America can be its own third identity, separate from Asian and American. “We live in this isolated, liminal space. And that’s all right,” Yeun said over Zoom.

“Minari,” about a Korean American family’s putting down roots in Arkansas in the 1980s, is primarily in Korean, and it is made by an American director and an American production company. So when the news came that it was eligible to compete only in the best foreign language film category and not best film because of the multilingual script, people objected online.

Steven Yeun, Alan S. Kim, Yuh-Jung Youn, Yeri Han and Noel Cho in “Minari.”Josh Ethan Johnson / A24

Yeun said the rule shows a lack of recognition of America’s diversity: Many Americans speak multiple languages.

“We can’t expect rules and institutions to really capture the nuance and the complexity of real life — that America is not just shaped by the English language. It’s actually a confluence of so many things,” Yeun said. “I think for us to have made something that is challenging these notions and attempting, hopefully, to expand the understanding of what these things are, that’s great. I’m glad people are waking up to it.”

Yeun plays a man from Korea named Jacob, who dreams of going beyond his job in a chicken factory. He wants to own a farm and to sell Korean fruits and vegetables to the Korean community. “Every year 30,000 Koreans move to the United States. Wouldn’t they miss Korean food?” he tells his daughter.

“Minari,” which won the Grand Jury Prize and an Audience Award when it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last year, comes with enthusiastic early buzz. It has earned Yeun a Screen Actors Guild nomination for outstanding performance by a male actor in a leading role; he is the first Asian American to be nominated in that category. The film will have a theatrical release on Friday and then be available on demand on Feb. 26.

“Minari” was written and directed by Lee Isaac Chung, who based it on his own family, who owned a farm in Arkansas.

So what is Asian America to Yeun? “It’s really just a confidence in our own existence. I think, oftentimes, because we only have the parameters of Korea (or Asia, or a mother country) and America, we have to pick a side and pick little bits and pieces to help us find ourselves. And while that can work, it often ends up sounding like I have a foot in both. And the truth is I don’t have a foot in both. I just have a foot in my own thing — like our own intrinsic third culture.”

For Yeun, the story in “Minari” is intensely personal. For one, Chung is his wife’s cousin, although the two hadn’t talked extensively until Chung sent him the script for “Minari.” “I had seen his first film, ‘Munyurangabo,’ on a date with my wife,” said Yeun, who is an executive producer on “Minari.”

Yeun’s family immigrated to Canada and later Michigan during the ’80s. “Minari” has been a way for him not just to tell an Asian American story, but also to explore what Asian America is — at least for himself.

Yeun rose to fame killing zombies on “The Walking Dead” before he starred in critically acclaimed films such as Bong Joon-ho’s “Okja,” Boots Riley’s “Sorry to Bother You” and Lee Chang-dong’s “Burning.”

Having worked in both the American and Korean film industries, Yeun has compared the Korean American identity to “pizza with kimchi.” But it’s actually much more complex than that. “Even the pizza and kimchi thing, I was just kind of talking off the cuff. And even that fails to define what I’m talking about,” he said. “I’m still thinking this through.”

So what is Asian America to Yeun? “It’s really just a confidence in our own existence,” he said. “I think, oftentimes, because we only have the parameters of Korea (or Asia, or a mother country) and America, we have to pick a side and pick little bits and pieces to help us find ourselves. And while that can work, it often ends up sounding like I have a foot in both. And the truth is I don’t have a foot in both. I just have a foot in my own thing — like our own intrinsic third culture.”

“Minari” has not only made Yeun rethink what it is to be Asian American; it has also made him rethink his family history. Yeun, at 37, is now around the same age his father was when he immigrated from Korea. The character of Jacob was formed both by Yeun’s recollections of his own father and by his own experience as a father of two.

“I started to realize that I am my father in some ways,” he said. “I see what drove him. I see how I misunderstood him. I can see a little bit clearly his intentions that I read as oppression — I see it, and I can see how we can misunderstand each other.”

Yeun was careful not to turn Jacob into a typical stoic Asian patriarch. Yes, Jacob argues with his wife and is frustrated by the day-to-day difficulties of being an immigrant in America. But he is also affectionate with his family, even playful; on their first night in Arkansas, Jacob suggests that the family all sleep together on the floor in the living room.

“Oftentimes, I think the collective understanding of who our Asian dads are — as, like, a meme, almost — gets in the way of admitting who they actually were and seeing them for the human beings that they are.”

“Oftentimes, I think the collective understanding of who our Asian dads are — as, like, a meme, almost — gets in the way of admitting who they actually were and seeing them for the human beings that they are,” Yeun said. “Sometimes they know how to express their love to you. And then other times, they’re completely unable to be emotional about something. They’re just human beings.”

That paternal energy translated to how Yeun treated his younger costars; Jacob has two kids in the film, one played by eight-year-old Alan S. Kim. “Minari” is Alan’s first film, and Yeun gave him some acting advice on the set: “He said, ‘Don’t rush and just be yourself,'” said Alan, who said Yeun reminded him of his own dad, “except Steven doesn’t wear glasses all the time.”

Yeun isn’t sure where “Minari” falls in the realm of Asian immigrant narratives onscreen when compared to sitcoms like “Fresh Off the Boat” or “Kim’s Convenience.”

But he does know that the film isn’t trying to tell the quintessential Asian American narrative. “Minari” is the story of one family, fighting for a slice of the American dream, who just happen to be Korean American, with all their pitfalls and triumphs.

“We talked a lot about making sure that we defined ourselves, that we weren’t juxtaposing ourselves to a white gaze or to a majority gaze,” Yeun said. “We were just professing the eternal truth of this family in and of itself and actually accessing its humanity.”

That’s why, aside from some white side characters, the core cast members are Korean and Korean Americans. And that’s why the film is primarily in Korean, because most immigrants and first-generation families still speak a different language at home. There’s no explanation for it in the film; it just is.

“I feel like in honoring the humanity of my parents and their generation, I’ve ended up becoming a little bit more free and full, in and of myself,” Yeun said. “I’m not trying to define myself through these, like, limits of shame or all these things. But rather, I am what I am. And that’s totally cool.”

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