Yuh-jung Youn Interview: Minari

Minari explores the bonds of family and comfort of culture in the face of new and frightening circumstances. The Oscar contender, which will release in theaters on February 12 and be available on-demand starting February 26, follows the Yi family after patriarch Jacob (Steven Yeun, The Walking Dead) moves them to Arkansas to pursue his dream of growing Korean vegetables on an American farm.

Due to financial strain, Jacob and his wife Monica (Yeri Han) both have to work, and so grandmother Soonja (Yuh-jung Youn) is brought in from Korea to take care of the children. The heart of the film in many ways rests on the delicate dynamic between Soonja and her grandson David (newcomer Alan S. Kim), who doesn’t understand why she’s not like a “real grandma” at first.

Youn, who is an icon in Korea with decades of award-winning films behind her, spoke to Screen Rant about crossing over to the American film industry and weaving a realistic family story with director Lee Isaac Chung.

You did such an amazing job in this film, and you are being recognized internationally for it. Obviously, you are no stranger to awards and to praise in Korea, but what has the reception from a wider platform been like for you?

Yuh-jung Youn: Because this is my first experience getting nominated for a SAG Award, it’s not real to me. Because I never even dreamt about this kind of situation. People say, “Wow, congratulations,” and I say, “Well, I’m not the winner. I’m just being nominated.”

They say it’s a great thing. Because I’m very ignorant about this situation, if they say so, then I’m honored.

What was it that drew you to the project and made you want to be involved?

Yuh-jung Youn: In Korea, I’ve been working a long period of time, like five decades – I’m not bragging, just talking about my age. But after 60, I thought about myself. There’s not many roles for older actresses, so I decided to just focus on the people; if I like the director as a person, then I’ll do it.

This project, my dear friend brought this script for me. I trust her, so I started to read it and found the story was very real to me. Right away, I called her back and said, “Okay, I will do it.”

I know you’ve lived in the United States as well as in Korea. Did that help you understand the Yi family’s situation better?

Yuh-jung Youn: I think so. The story felt real to me because I’ve been watching so many friends in The States as immigrants, and they were suffering and struggling with English and everything. I’ve been watching so many friends in that situation, so it’s not strange to me. Maybe that’s why I decided right away, “I will do it. I can be part of this movie.”

It’s so interesting to see Korean actors and Korean-American actors come together in one film, given how approaches to acting can differ depending on the place. What was it like to step into that melting pot and create a unified vision for Minari?

Yuh-jung Youn: The melting pot was eating together. The food is very important for Yeri and me. My friend In-ah [Lee], who introduced me to Isaac and gave me the script, felt so sorry for me because we were going to be in the middle of somewhere in Tulsa. So, she took a vacation, trying to protect me; she came along with me and used her whole vacation, almost two months. Then she ended up being the cook.

She happened to be a very, very good cook. So, people gathered, and we were discussing the script and how to translate English to Korean. She was always cooking for us, and Steven stayed there because of the smell of the food. You cannot leave. So, we started to eat together and discuss more and more. That food brings us together.

Speaking of food, what does the title of Minari represent to you?

Yuh-jung Youn: Before I make this movie, usually we eat it in Korea. But when you are a kid, you don’t like the smell. It’s not strong smell, like cilantro, but a kid doesn’t like to eat minari. But I’m a grown woman, and we eat it all the time; they put it in the soup or somewhere we can eat as a vegetable.

I didn’t think about minari at all before I started this movie, and then I learned about it from Isaac. That was a very memorable moment. Minari actually clears the soil if you plant the seed. The first year, it’s not growing. But from the next year, it starts to grow, and it will never die. While they are growing, if you put that seed in the ground, it will clear the soil. I didn’t know that minari was that important, and it is meaningful.

Soonja’s relationship with her grandson David is similar to that of children and minari. At first he doesn’t like you, then he grows to realize how important you are. What was it like building that dynamic with Alan, given his youth and inexperience?

Yuh-jung Youn: First, I was scared because I heard that he doesn’t have any acting experience. I thought, “Oh, my goodness. I’m going to do a whole day with him.” That was my worry, but Isaac directed him in a smart way.

He memorized all the line, so he didn’t have any trouble with forgetting lines. He was better than some grown-up actors, who don’t memorize the lines. He was ready all the time. We were doing it together, then later on, Isaac asked him to do a special expression in front of the camera. I thought, “Okay, Isaac will add them together.” That’s how the scenes come out like this. We didn’t have any trouble at all between him and me.

One moment I found really powerful was when Soonja tells David that nothing will happen to him. It feels like that really changes the course of both of your characters. Can you talk about how that shapes their family bond, and what is behind it?

Yuh-jung Youn: I thought about myself too. Because when you raise your own kid, being a parent is your first job. You try to always make them correct; saying, “Don’t do this, and do it like that.” But when you become a grandmother, she has the wisdom of life and living, so she can be easy on them. I think that’s part of her wisdom.

Of course, she wishes him to be okay. She’s trying to secure and comfort him, and make sure she’s saying it to him, too. “You’re going to be alright. You’re not going to die.” I’m sure all grandmas would do that. in that scene, I think that Isaac did a beautiful job.

At the start of the film, Soonja hasn’t even met David because she hasn’t seen the family since they went to America. Can you talk about any backstory that you discussed for her, and how she feels about Jacob as her daughter’s husband?

Yuh-jung Youn: I’m sure that behind the scenes, they write back to each other, and [Monica] wrote about their situation. She knew they are not doing well; that’s why she came to watch the kids. She knows that they have to go out and work, both of them.

But the interesting thing is that, because of old age, she could just accept things like that. Monica says sorry that we are not living properly; that we are living in this trailer house. But the grandmother didn’t care. For her, it’s just fun and very nice to have a house with wheels. I gather that she knows, even though she doesn’t have any American living experience in the script. But she likes to comfort her daughter. “It’s nothing. It’s rather nice, we’ve never had wheels on the house in Korea. This is new experience to me.”

Comforting my daughter is why I got that story.

I loved that she was such a warm person despite her foul mouth and lack of filter. How did you open up her character in your performance?

Yuh-jung Youn: I asked Isaac first, “Should I imitate your grandmother? Is there any specific gesture or something?” And Isaac just said, “No, you don’t have to do that. Just do it your own way.”

He gave me the freedom. I just enjoyed playing that role, and I really appreciated it.

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