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Rarely portrayed in popular culture, 'Minari' follows story of a Korean American family


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: The Oscar nominations were announced today, the biggest haul, "Mank." a black-and-white film about 1930s Hollywood, received 10 nominations.

After years of frustration over the lack of diversity in awards selections, just one Black-centered film, "Judas and the Black Messiah," received a nomination in the best picture category. And no African Americans received nominations in the directing category.

There were several notable firsts. Two women were nominated for best director, Chloe Zhao for "Nomadland" and Emerald Fennell for "Promising Young Woman." In the best actor category, Riz Ahmed became the first Muslim and Steven Yeun the first Asian-American to be nominated.

Another to get a lot of attention, the film "Minari," a story of Korean immigrants rarely portrayed in popular culture. It received six nominations, including best picture and best director.

Jeffrey Brown has a look for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: It's an American film largely in a foreign language. "Minari" set in the 1980s follows Korean transplant Jacob Yi, played by actor Steven Yeun, who moves his young family to an Arkansas farm.

Steven Yeun (through translator): The House, we have to pay for water. But for our farm, we can get free water from the land.

Jeffrey Brown: He struggles with the soil, while they all struggle as strangers in a strange new land.

Lee Isaac Chung: Inside of our little trailer home, it was like Korea, and, outside, it was the Ozarks.

Jeffrey Brown: The film is a fictionalized account of writer/director Lee Isaac Chung's own childhood.

Lee Isaac Chung: I actually started with about 80 memories. And once I did this exercise of just charting out different things from I remember being that age, around 5 to 6 years old, I saw the arc of the family story, of a journey that a family takes together.

Jeffrey Brown: Taken together, but following Jacob's dream, leading to tensions with his wife, Monica, played by Yeri Han.

Yeri Han: We will go broke living here. Think about the kids.

Steven Yeun: They need to see me succeed at something for once.

Jeffrey Brown: The film is named for a bitter herb popular in Korea. Here, it's a symbol of resilience that comes at great cost.

This is basically your parents' story. How much did you know of their struggles?

Lee Isaac Chung: Growing up, we always knew that their lives were a bit of a compromise, not exactly what they wanted to be doing. Life wasn't turning out exactly how they had hoped. And so that always filled my sister and I with a deep sense of desire to make their sacrifices count in some way.

Jeffrey Brown: I read your father told you that he came to this country because he watched Hollywood movies, and then here you are later creating movies to tell that American story in a different way, perhaps?

Lee Isaac Chung: It is quite ironic in some sense. When my mom found out that I wanted to become a filmmaker, her first thing that she did was that she turned to my dad and said: "This is your fault. You watched too many movies growing up."

Jeffrey Brown: Chung's story is told through the eyes of 7-year-old David, as he navigates a new world with other children.

Actor: Why is your face so flat?

Jeffrey Brown: And, in the film's most poignant relationship, with his own grandmother, newly arrived from Korea to help the family, with little English, a mischief-making figure from the old world.

Youn Yuh-Jung (through translator): Come here.

Pretty boy. Pretty boy. Pretty.

Alan Kim: I'm not pretty. I'm good-looking.

Jeffrey Brown: Veteran South Korean actress Youn Yuh-jung sought guidance from director Chung on the role.

Youn Yuh-Jung: I'm sure he had a vivid memory of grandmother. So should I imitate her, or -- I asked him. And he said no, no, no, no, you just play yourself. It's fine with me.

So, we -- actually, we created that character together. And later on, after we finished that movie, and then Isaac said: "My grandmother was not like you at all."


Jeffrey Brown: Chung, in fact, dedicated the film to "all our grandmas."

Jung said she thought of her own, who made so many sacrifices for her family in the difficult years after the Korean war.

Youn Yuh-Jung: I didn't realize until I get 60, over 60, I was so bad to pie grandmother. So, from that time, every night, I prayed for her, just ask her forgiveness. I was so stupid, and I didn't know your sacrifice and your love and your devotion. I understood perfectly this script.

Jeffrey Brown: In the, Yeun's film wrestling-watching, profane grandma learns to love Mountain Dew.

Youn Yuh-Jung: Good boy, good boy, good boy.

Jeffrey Brown: In one memorable scene, David puts urine in her cup, instead of soda.

It was 8-year-old act are and, as you can see, style-maker Alan Kim's favorite scene.

Alan Kim: It wasn't real pee, though, because that would be bad. It was Mountain Dew.

Jeffrey Brown: Did you know much about that generation of people coming from Korea to the United States?

Alan Kim: My mom and dad say it is called the American dream, but I have never heard about that.

Jeffrey Brown: "Minari"'s Golden Globe win came in the foreign language category. That sparked a mini-controversy by a film by Americans.

Chung wrote it in 2018 amid political divisions. It comes out amid violence against Asian Americans during the pandemic, but also as part of a flowering of Asian American stories in popular culture.

Lee Isaac Chung: I feel like audiences are starting to hunger this more, or at least showing that they hunger more diverse stories and experiences outside of what they are used to.

Jeffrey Brown: I did see where you said that maybe this film could help challenge the categories, how we even think about perhaps, what is an American film?

Lee Isaac Chung: One of the things I feel we are doing now in this culture is that we are so quick to categorize people. We're so quick to assume what people feel, what a Southern white farmer might feel or a Southern white Christian farmer might feel, and then also an immigration.

I felt as though this is the story that removes those divisions and instead invests in the idea that we're just people.

Jeffrey Brown: "Minari" is now streaming and in theaters.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown.

Judy Woodruff: Really looking forward to seeing this one.

Thank you, Jeffrey.

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