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For Steven Yeun, 'Minari' Hits On Generational 'Disconnect' For Immigrants


And finally today, what makes a classic American story? Is it about grit, defying the odds, an unshakable optimism no matter what? By that definition, then "Minari" certainly qualifies. The new movie focuses on a Korean man who moves his young family, including his very skeptical wife, to Arkansas in the 1980s, hoping to improve their lot by farming Korean vegetables. It is, as we said, a classic rags-to-maybe-riches story full of trials and unexpected sources of strength. And recently it was nominated for a Golden Globe in the category of Best Foreign Language Film, although not Best Picture, which is one of the things we want to talk about with our guest, Steven Yeun, who leads the ensemble. Steven Yeun, thank you so much for joining us and congratulations.

STEVEN YEUN: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So I think people would remember you from other meaty roles like in "The Walking Dead." And what attracted you to this one?

YEUN: You know, I think Isaac really wrote something true and honest. And you could feel it off the page. And...

MARTIN: Isaac being....

YEUN: Lee Isaac Chung, our incredible director and writer. He just crafted something that I deeply related to. Oftentimes, I feel like stories of the other or immigrant life is told from a perspective of juxtaposed to, I guess, like a white American gaze or how they fit into America. And this one was just talking about these people from their perspective as the family that they are and the human beings that they are. And I found that so massively refreshing. And that's really what brought me to it.

MARTIN: It seems like you were made for this role. I mean, was it written for you?

YEUN: Thanks. It wasn't written for me, but I wonder about that on like a larger universal understanding. You know, it really felt kismet that this type of project was able to be made and that I was able to participate in it and that the work previous for me to this film had in some ways prepared me to take this on, which, I'll be honest, was very, very terrifying.

MARTIN: Really? Why? I mean, why terrifying?

YEUN: Not only am I touching upon my own father's generation, we're touching upon, I think, something that I've been unpacking through this journey, which is just a massive disconnection that happens in immigration from the first generation to the second. And that disconnect is slow. And it's - it takes its time. For me personally, when - I was born in Korea. And when I moved over to America with my family, I was only 4. And so I was young enough for the world to assume that I didn't know, but I was old enough in reality to actually know. And I felt all the feelings.

And so I think, you know, to have the safety of a place that you know, and then to be kind of taken away from it, and then a slow separation from your parents via culture, via language, via understanding of the new place that you live in, was subconsciously painful. So approaching this, I think a lot of the work was emotional and mental of understanding how to kind of see my own parents as the human beings that they are instead of maybe the ideas or understandings or the images by which I try to understand them. And that was a really scary but beautiful proposition.

MARTIN: Let me just play a clip now. This is a scene where you and your little boy in the film, named David...

YEUN: Yes.

MARTIN: ...Are looking for water. And they're looking for a place to build a well. And the scene starts out with a douser. That's a person who tries to feel the vibrations of the water underground through a stick. But Jacob turns him down because it costs too much. And then he's explaining to his child that it's an American superstition anyway and that Koreans use their minds to figure these things out. And the scene is in a mix of English and Korean. And we're just going to listen. Here it is.


YEUN: (As Jacob) David. (Speaking Korean). OK? We use our minds. Yeah. (Speaking Korean). Where will the water go, high place or low place?

ALAN S KIM: (As David) Low place.

YEUN: (As Jacob, speaking Korean) OK. (Speaking Korean).

KIM: (As David) There.

YEUN: (As Jacob, speaking Korean).

KIM: (As David) There.

YEUN: (As Jacob) Why?

KIM: (As David) 'Cause trees like water.

YEUN: (As Jacob, laughing)

MARTIN: And they're roughhousing there, just to let everybody know. They're - you know, dad and his son out having a good time, trying to pass on some knowledge. So what is that scene about for you?

YEUN: That scene is about so many things. I think it's about Jacob's innate desire to plant his own flag from his own place. And then also, I think it's him trying to connect and preserve what knowledge and culture he has that he wants to deeply pass on to his son. I think he's holding on to - he's simultaneously trying to escape from and also hold on to certain things that has made him up to this point.

MARTIN: Without giving too much away, that kind of is, in part, what the film is about, isn't it? It's an immigrant story. It's about - as we said, it's a story about kind of seeking a new life and wanting more. But it's also about their family and how they kind of discover themselves.

YEUN: I mean, and that's - it is very - it is - it's just lovely. It's very - I don't know how else to describe it. It's...

YEUN: Thank you.

MARTIN: ...Very personal and intimate but also, you know, says some big things. To that end, though, again, congratulations on the Golden Globe. But the whole foreign language film thing, I don't know. How do you feel about that?

YEUN: I get the tension of the moment. I get the anger. I get the fact that, you know, immigrants and the language that we speak sometimes are not looked, especially Asian Americans, are not looked upon as being a fabric of this country. And I think while the rules necessarily weren't trying to convey that, it in turn kind of made that message, especially in these times. And I think...

MARTIN: Let me just jump in. Forgive me. I don't think I explained for people who aren't aware of necessarily what we're talking about. I think maybe I should explain some more.

YEUN: Yeah. Sure.

MARTIN: As I said, the nomination is in the category of Best Foreign Language Film. Apparently, there's a rule that the film has to be mostly in English to be eligible for the Best Picture awards. So "Minari" didn't qualify, even though it is in - it's set in the United States. It's in Arkansas. And it's in English and Korean. Others have spoken out about this. Lulu Wang, director of the film "The Farewell," which was similarly, you know, applauded last year but similarly locked out of the same category tweeted about this. She said, I've not seen a more American film than "Minari" this year. It's a story about an immigrant family in America pursuing the American dream. We really need to change these antiquated rules that characterizes American as only English-speaking. So...

YEUN: And I think that's right. That's - she has that - she hit that nail on the head. So thank you to Lulu for vouching for us. But yeah, I think personally, I'm glad to be part of a project that gets to challenge these understandings of who we are as a nation and who - how we relate to each other. I think sometimes we're so busy compartmentalizing each other that we forget to see each other for the human beings that we are and the humanity that we all kind of carry. And rules and institutions often are very lacking in seeing the nuance and the complexity of real life. And so if we can be a part of that change and be a part of the momentum to expand culture that way, that's great, so cool (laughter).

MARTIN: So before we let you go, the title of the film, what's minari?

YEUN: Minari is a plant that dies in the first year and grows in the second year. And it purifies everything around it, the water and the soil. And so, yeah, I think the allegory kind of speaks for itself.

MARTIN: That was Steven Yeun, who stars in the new film "Minari." It is out now and will be available to stream on-demand later this month. Steven Yeun, thank you so much for joining us. I really enjoyed talking with you.

YEUN: Yeah. Thanks so much. Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.