One of this year’s highly anticipated and acclaimed movies was Minari, a semi-autobiographical film written and directed by Lee Isaac Chung. The film depicts a young South Korean immigrant family trying to create a life for themselves in rural Arkansas, a nuanced take on the American dream and the struggles that accompany that endeavor. As the viewer, you see David, the youngest son, share a room with his unorthodox grandmother from Korea. You hear Steven Yeun and Han Ye-Ri, who play the father and mother of the family, speak to each other exclusively in Korean, but use a hybrid of Korean/English to their kids, who aren’t fully fluent in Korean. You witness the entire Yi family trying to work hard and keep a low radar, despite being the only non-white family in the entire town.
While the world and dreams of the Yi family are based on Lee Isaac Chung’s own family story, Green Shirt producer Hanah Chang was able to see parts of herself and her family’s story manifested in the film. Hanah, who is second-generation Korean American, was born and raised in the Southwest suburbs of Chicago in a town that had a small Korean community. Hanah grew up helping at her family’s assortment of businesses, sometimes working instead of being able to live life as a regular American teenager. She grew up sharing a room with her sister and grandmother, just like David does in Minari. She remembers her dad speaking mostly in Korean to her with a few English peppered randomly throughout, which she found to be a bit annoying. In elementary school, a white classmate once openly criticized what Hanah was having for lunch (Korean food), which resulted in Hanah bringing PB&J sandwiches from then on. Seeing these familiar examples in Minari made Hanah nostalgic, even frank about her experiences growing up.
In Minari, there are five characters in the Yi family, all with extremely different personalities and perspectives. Hanah saw herself “in every single one of the characters.” Jacob, the father, carried an endless intensity and drive toward accomplishing his lofty goals. Monica, the mother, brought her consistent sense of pragmaticism, crucial when Jacob’s quixotic dreams jeopardized the family’s stability. Anne, the eldest daughter and child of the Yi family, is depicted as being both in the spotlight but also in the background. As the eldest child, Hanah grew up “having a whole lot of responsibility,” with the perpetual task of looking after her younger sister. There’s a silent expectation of being the eldest, model child, one who doesn’t get the affirmation or recognition that you’d expect. It’s from the incredible specificity of these characters that really ground Minari in a reality that Korean Americans like Hanah can find particularly compelling and even uncanny to their own.
For those of you who know Hanah, you know that she’s an ambitious storyteller and actor, a hustler who is always auditioning for anything that comes her way. She’s constantly taking acting classes in Chicago and trying to simultaneously learn about producing, video editing, writing, playing the ukulele – you name it. Hanah carries with her an apparent intensity for creating and doing, balanced by also being grounded and present; she’s somewhat of a combination of the parents in Minari.
In some ways, Minari offered some insight for Hanah in how her creative direction could look like. After watching the film, Hanah thought, “This is doable and people will watch it and care.” Hanah talked about how Asian American representation in Hollywood is at an all-time high, with big blockbusters to independent films featuring and starring Asian American narratives being produced in the last few years. Films like Minari seem to be concrete encouragement for Hanah, who dreams of writing and making films that focus on her own story and personal experiences.
While the premise of Minari is quite unique (a Korean American family trying to start a farm in rural Arkansas in 1983), many viewers were able to relate to the small, personable moments throughout the film: being the new family at church; going on summertime walks with your grandma; running after someone in the darkness. These types of “specific moments” are ones that Hanah hopes to recreate and make as a storyteller. It’s from those small moments that people “can learn something about themselves,” she says. Those small, mundane moments that we oftentimes don’t attribute value or significance to are actually moments that are in fact understood by all of us watching.