For her breathtaking performance as Monica in Lee Isaac Chung’s film, Han went back to her roots.
Every day is exciting if you were in Minari. Yeri Han can’t deny it. “I definitely feel like something surprising and amazing is happening in my life,” the actress says. She’s right.
One of the most celebrated films of the past year, Lee Isaac Chung’s delicate portrait of a Korean immigrant family building a life on American soil has captivated critics and audiences alike. It earned the top prize when it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival more than a year ago, and the momentum only grew as the months passed, earning spots on best-of-2020 lists and scooping up more awards. Last month, it earned three nominations from the Screen Actors Guild. Two Sundays ago, it took home a Golden Globe. An Oscar could be next.
Cast members like lead Steven Yeun, eight-year-old wunderkind Alan Kim, and Korean screen veteran Yuh-jung Youn have become phenomena of their own as the ongoing buzz continues. Same goes for Han, who came up in the Korean indie scene with films like Worst Woman (2016); As One (2012), in which she portrays table tennis pro Yu Sun-bok; and A Dramatic Night (2015), a romantic comedy. Like Youn, Minari marks Han’s Hollywood debut. But even with all the hype, Han, who’s based in Korea, is staying grounded. “I feel very calm, because I’m not at the center of the scene right now,” she tells Newsfresh.net on Zoom with a translator, looking fresh-faced and smiling in a gray crew-neck sweater and low ponytail.
In Minari’s leading Yi family, Han plays Monica, wife of Jacob (Yeun) and mother of kids David (Kim) and Anne (Noel Kate Cho). Pragmatic and concerned for her children, Monica disapproves of Jacob’s decision to relocate from California to Arkansas, where he dreams to cultivate a farm they can survive on and profit from. It’s easy to turn the role into a one-dimensional, whining and resentful wife, but Han does the opposite with a quiet strength and layered performance. “I came to have a lot of respect for the strength that families in general have,” she says.
Minari has been praised for its vivid, nuanced portrayal of an Asian-American family, especially poignant during a time when the community is starving for representation on the screen and suffering from discriminatory attacks off of it. But even with its specificity, the film is relevant in many ways during this time, whether it’s through hardships a family endures or the unflinching determination one has for a better life in times of despair. It can also just be an escape.
“Everyone is going through such a hard time right now with the COVID crisis,” Han says. “I just hope that this film provides at least one day where they can feel comforted and feel warm, and have an opportunity to reflect on their childhood and reflect on those memories, even if it’s just for one day.”
Here, she discusses her time on Minari, Monica and Jacob’s relationship, and the lessons she’s learned from generations past.
Minari is based on Lee Isaac Chung’s own childhood and upbringing. I’m sure those must have been really intimate and precious memories and experiences for the director to bring to life. What were your conversations with him like when it came to becoming Monica?
I had a lot of conversations with Isaac about his childhood and his parents from his childhood. I also talked about my own childhood and my parents as well. While reflecting on the women of those times, I realized I had a lot of materials, personally, to rely on, because I have six aunts. I’m also very familiar with my grandmother’s life. So just thinking about my family and the women of my family, it helps me build the character of Monica. I talked about this a lot with Isaac.
During the process of putting this story on-screen and working with Isaac, I got to understand my parents more. I got to reflect on their youth that I wasn’t familiar with. I realized how difficult it must have been for them to raise children.
Definitely. The story is about resilience through struggle, especially as a family. Is that something you saw in your family and the women in your family as well?
Our parents are from a generation where they get married at a younger age. It occurred to me that they probably got married at an age when they weren’t fully aware of who they were as individuals, before they had a solid sense of self and before they fully became grown-ups. So in a way, they are growing alongside their children. It’s almost inevitable that they share the growing pains together. I’m just thankful that these children can still manage to grow under the love of their parents and the warmth that they provide.
Even I feel a lot of generational conflict with my parents. I think it must’ve been worse for Isaac and Steven. I think at one point, they probably found it very difficult to communicate with their parents. Because they grew up American. Outside, they would hang out with American kids, and they would come back home to very Korean parents. So it occurred to me that from a certain point, they felt very cut off from their parents. I’m just proud of myself and Isaac and Steven for growing up properly, and I’m just very thankful to our parents.
I agree with you, because that’s something that happened to me. I grew up as an immigrant kid and had to kind of balance American culture. I really related to David’s character, actually, because there were some things that I recognized through my own childhood too. Since you grew up and are still living in Korea, and this is a story about an immigrant family, what did you take away from immersing yourself in this different experience? Is there anything that you learned or that might have surprised you about this family?
So out of all the characters in the film, Monica is kind of the most closed off and the most Korean person in the story. Throughout the film, she goes through a process of accepting her new environment. I was just the same, naturally accepting all these new experiences while performing this character.
First of all, I think I really came to understand the previous generation through this film and understand their struggles and their best intentions despite what might’ve happened. I also asked myself, “What is family?” They go through such a difficult process together, and they ultimately overcome it. I came to have a lot of respect for the strength that families in general have. I also came to respect all the people who lay down their roots in the U.S., in a new land, and the sacrifices our previous generation made so that the next generation can lay down their roots.
I’m going to switch topics a little bit, because I have to ask: What was Steven Yeun like as a scene partner?
First of all, Steven is such a good person, and he’s very handsome. [Laughs.] Steven was more passionate about this film than anyone else, because it’s a story that reflects his own life as well. He really wanted to do a good job with this film, and so I didn’t want to be a flaw in Steven and Isaac’s story. So I tried my best to meet their expectations.
And also, he’s a very honest and truthful actor. If he felt like something wasn’t quite right or something was a little bit off, he would always ask me how he did and if I wanted to do a different version of it. He really just opened up his heart, which I’m very thankful of.
It’s really interesting watching Monica and Jacob’s relationship. There is a lot of tension and fighting, but it seems like, at least from some of the things her mother says, that they used to be very in love, which you don’t particularly see on the screen. What did you imagine their life was like together in Korea, maybe before they moved to America or when they were newly married?
So this is something that I talked to Isaac about, and something that I thought a lot about, which is, the reason why she loves Jacob is probably because he really resembles [her mother] Soonja. He’s also very funny. He has a great sense of humor. He’s a go-getter. I think to her eyes, he’s such a respectable person.
But as Jacob becomes a father and has to fulfill a certain role, I think they started talking less and started prioritizing the things that they must accomplish. That’s probably when they started fighting often. Their problems must have increased at least tenfold after they came to the U.S. Things probably happened that they just couldn’t resolve on their own, so they started talking less, laughing less, and their relationship became more about the silence.
I don’t think Monica ever forgot her love for Jacob. When her mother is like, “Do you remember that song?” [referring to a love song Monica and Jacob used to sing together], I don’t think Monica ever forgot it. It’s just that she buried it in her heart, and she’s in a position where she can’t kind of become nostalgic about it, because becoming nostalgic would mean that she becomes weaker and maybe can’t protect her children as much.
That’s really heartbreaking.
Yeah, it’s very heartbreaking when I think about Monica.
Some viewers might be rooting for Jacob to fulfill his dream, but what makes you sympathize with Monica?
First of all, it’s not Monica’s own dream to be in the U.S. and raising her children that way. It’s not something that she wished for herself. I think this is where people come to sympathize with her, because she’s someone who constantly thinks about her children’s future and sacrifices herself to provide a better environment. And that’s how we grew up. We grew up and we are living the life we do now because of that generation’s sacrifice. I think that can bring a lot of sympathy from the audience.
I don’t think Monica ever forgot her love for Jacob. … It’s just that she buried it in her heart
I also really love the bond and dynamic that you and Yuh-jung have as Monica and Soonja. She is such a legend in Korean cinema; did she impart you with any wisdom or advice while you were on set together?
Because the film was such a small budget, we didn’t have a lot of people to support us during the process. When we arrived on set, Yuh-jung was like, “Yeri, you have to pull yourself together. There’s no one here to help us. It’s just the two of us. We have to show them the strength of Korean actors.” And that was actually really encouraging, so I was really just fully focused until the very end.
It was just a joke, but a crew member from Hollywood told me, like, “Hollywood films are not all like this. Don’t run away. You have to do a Hollywood film next time, because it’s not always like this.” [Laughs.]
And we are looking ahead to Oscar nominations. Do you have hopes, or are you keeping it cool?
I feel very calm, because I’m not at the center of the scene right now. I’m not in Hollywood to watch all of it unfold. My life and my days, nothing has changed at all. But I really hope that good things happen to Isaac and for Yuh-jung. Of course, I’m sure they’re not greedy about it, but just personally, I wish the best for both of them.
You’ve said that the bond you created with the cast made you all feel like a family. Now that you’re apart, what do you miss about spending time with them?
I miss everything and everyone. I miss all of them so much. I’m just really grateful that I got to have that time with them. I constantly just realize more and more how precious those times were, and I feel that those times won’t come again in my life.
Han and Noel Kate Cho in Minari.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.