MINARI Interview: Star Han Ye-ri on Life, Love, Family and Crossing Over

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MINARI Interview: Star Han Ye-ri on Life, Love, Family and Crossing Over
Since our first interview in 2017, Han Ye-ri’s reputation as one of the most compelling presences in Korean cinema has risen exponentially.  Ms. Han, whose commanding, emotional performances made her one of Korea’s most in-demand actors, took a big leap westward to star in Minari, Director Lee Isaac Chung’s semi-autobiographical story of a family’s struggle to find their version of the American dream. 
 
Zooming in from Seoul, Han Ye-ri spoke exclusively about overcoming her fears to make her critically-acclaimed international debut, working with Steven Yeun and Korean cinema legend Youn Yuh-jung for the first time.
 
 
The Lady Miz Diva:  There is a remarkable moment at the film’s start, when Monica gets out of the car in front of the trailer and asks “What is this?” and her huband, Jacob, says, “This is our new home.”  Monica looks off to the right, where they just came from, like she’s strongly considering running.  That would have been my reaction completely and you pulled me in from that second.  Please tell me how you read Monica when you were first given the script?
 
Han Ye-ri:  First of all, when as Monica’s character, I saw this house on wheels -- that could be blown off the ground -- that I would have to be living there with my kids; raising my kids there, I felt as though I was faced with a wall.  I thought, if I were Monica, since this is our home -- for now, anyway -- she would try to make it as homey, as comfortable, as much of a resting place for the family as she can.  
 
When I first saw the script, I wasn’t sure how well I could portray this character, so I was very concerned.  But after meeting Isaac {Director Lee Isaac Chung} -- because he is a genuinely great guy -- I was really looking forward to making Monica’s character rich and warm together.  And as Monica, what I felt most was, why is she staying with Jacob?  Why?
 
LMD:  When we spoke during A QUIET DREAM, you said that you got to know that character a lot more as you started filming.  There are so many layers and depth revealed as MINARI unspools, was that also the case when playing Monica? 
 
HYr:  To portray Monica, I thought about my mom and my aunts a lot.  And thinking about my mom a lot, that she had kids at such a young age.  It made me think about these woman, who had to live in that era, and had to have that experience of raising a family in such difficulty together, and them struggling through the hardship, but trying to make the best choice that they can.  I found that I had lots of memories of my childhood of my mom and my aunts that I could refer back to like photographs.
 
LMD:  This is a movie with a lot of meaning in stillness.  A lot has to be said without saying anything, particularly in Monica’s relationship to Jacob.  How did you and Steven Yeun work at being able to have entire dialogues without saying a word? 
 
HYr:  I thought that this couple would’ve tried to talk to each other for a long time until they gave up.  And they were doing things intentionally, knowing that they knew the other wouldn’t approve, or it would make them unhappy.  
 
I think the silent treatment is the worst punishment that you can give.  That’s why Monica was intentionally silent around Jacob a lot, because he would never do things that she wants, and that was her way of protesting.  Nevertheless, she had the firm belief that the family has to stay together, and the big basis of that to make that happen is her love.
 
LMD:  The film's silences speak volumes.  This is not remotely an action film, but by the time Monica and Jacob’s frustrations build up to a breaking point, that moment is like a bomb going off -- very quietly.  MINARI seems like a very tightly-produced project.  Did you actually have a lot of time to work with Steven Yeun on those scenes?  Did you have a lot of rehearsal time with him and the rest of the cast?
 
HYr:  Like you said, this was a very tight production, but we didn’t have a lot of time on set, so we tried to keep the time on set to a minimum.  So, it was when the camera wasn’t rolling, we got together in the Air B&B that Youn Yuh-jung and I were staying, to have a lot of conversations to prepare us, about why did they come to America?  Why did Monica fall in love with him?
 
Until that moment she expresses that she might leave with her children; it wasn’t until Jacob put that seed in her.  It was when she was washing him in the bath, Jacob tells Monica, “You can leave if you want.”  It was that moment that really first got her to think, ‘Maybe that’s something I can think about?’  
 
Until she heard that coming out of Jacob’s mouth, I don’t think she would’ve even thought about leaving the family.  It was only when Jacob chooses the farm over the family, she realises that something is terribly wrong, and in order to protect myself and my children, I need to make a decision here.  I believe that’s why the energy that was conveyed in that scene was so strong, for that reason.
 
LMD:  I’m glad that you brought up your collaboration with Ms. Youn.  I’m fascinated by the relationship between Monica and her mother.  Maybe I’ve seen too many movies, and too many Korean dramas, but so often when we see mothers and daughters on screen, it’s in some sort of adversarial relationship, and when you bring the mother into the married relationship, there’s always trouble.  
 
That’s not this family.  Monica and Soon-ja seem to adore each other, and it made me wonder why they didn’t bring her over sooner?  As you mentioned you didn’t have a lot of time to rehearse, did you create a life for Monica and her family as you prepared the character? 
 
HYr:  Youn Yuh-jung and I didn’t actually talk a lot about these characters prior to the shoot.  It’s almost like Monica and Soon-ja sort of happened organically.  Because Monica lost her father to war when she was young, her mother was all she had.  They were the only family to each other; in that sense, they were each other’s best friend.  And because they have been apart for so long, there’s more sense of love between them than trouble, I thought.
 
And when I was thinking about Monica’s character, I thought that when she first saw Jacob and falls in love with him, I think Monica would have found something -- a quality that was similar to Soon-ja -- from Jacob.  That’s why she was drawn to him.
 
It was when Jacob moved to America, became a father, and things didn’t turn out the way he hoped, that he somehow changed from that person that Monica fell in love with.  So, I thought both Monica and Jacob would be missing what they had before.
 
LMD:  Mentioning how the on-screen relationship that you and Ms. Youn developed occurred organically makes me think that must’ve been the case between you and the two children.  There is a clear level of comfort we can see between you and the actors who play your son and daughter {Alan Kim as David, Noel Kate Cho as Anne}.  Please talk about working with the younger cast.  
 
HYr:  The child actors, they were so innocent and adorable.  And they followed me around on set, and they called me “Monica-mom,” “Monica-mom” all the time. {Laughs} They were so adorable, and I really developed a special affection for them.  Although I’m not married and I’ve never had children, I could instantly bond with them, and I really felt a special emotion for them.  Not only that, they are brilliant actors, too.  They really helped me get into Monica’s character quickly.
 
LMD:  I believe this is your first US production, is it not?
 
HYr:  Yes.  Yes, it is.
 
LMD:  Please tell us what is was about Director Lee Isaac Chung that made you trust him to take this big step overseas?  Also, please speak about his style of directing; how free were you to interpret Monica in your own way?
 
HYr:  When I met Isaac, I found out that his childhood wasn’t very different from mine.  To me, rather than trying to portray the life of an immigrant, I thought I had to show somebody just living their life in a strange place.  Monica’s character was the most Korean out of all in the film.  I thought I would just go there and experience that firsthand; the emotions as they come.  
 
So, for Isaac, instead of telling us a lot of things on set, he would listen to our stories about our own growing up, and really invited us to share our thoughts.  And when we were filming, he really gave me the room to do what I wanted, so I was grateful that I was able to do that.
 
LMD:  Before this interview, I reached out to Director Kim Jee-woon and he gave me some great insights about how highly he thought of you as an actress and collaborator after working with you on his last film, ILLANG.  You’ve made several wonderful films with Directors Zhang Lu and Kim Jong-kwan, and now, you’ve taken this big international step with Director Chung. 
 
As stated in our previous interview, and now here with MINARI, directors turn to you to guide their characters.  One of my favourite qualities about you as an actress, is besides the intensity and emotion you bring to your characters, how you make intelligent and unexpected choices in the way you portray them.  On-screen and speaking with you now, you have very informed opinions and observations.  It makes me wonder if will see Writer Han, or Director Han, or Producer Han someday? 
 
HYr:  Thank you, thank you so much, Diva. {Laughs}  To be honest, I’m not thinking about that at all at the moment. {Laughs}  I prefer the role of a player.  I am really enjoying digging deeply into something that is given to me, that is thrown at me, rather than expanding on my own.  I guess I enjoy the process of finding, or discovering what I know about a subject, or a theme, rather than telling my story. {Laughs}
 
LMD:  Thanks to MINARI, we now know that you are not only a player, but you are also a singer.  It is your voice on the ending theme song.  So, when can we expect your KPop album?
 
HYr:  {Laughs} No plans for any album anytime soon. {Laughs} I’m going to try working on my English for now.
 
LMD:  As this was your first US production, were there differences in the US system as opposed to in Korea?  Was there anything you experienced during working you would like to have on Korean sets, or the other way around? 
 
HYr:  I didn’t really feel any big difference between the productions here and in America, possibly because it was a low-budget production.  One thing I learned from this experience was that the language isn’t very much of a barrier, or a culture difference.  So, I hope that language wouldn’t discourage Korean actors from exploring their options.
 
The experience of this production really helped me overcome my fear of working on an international production, and I think the younger generation of actors will have more opportunities like this.
 
Another takeaway was seeing Ms. Youn at her work with so much passion, that I still have a long way to go.  I still have more to put out there.
 
LMD:  While MINARI is set in America, it has many themes and sentiments that anyone can relate to.  Could you speak about the universal messages in the film?
 
HYr:  Everybody has their own childhood and memories, thereof, and that’s very well captured in this film, I believe.  And there’s not a single bad character in the film; everybody is just trying to tell their own stories.  And I guess without pushing or forcing emotions on the audience, it gives them room so that they can take a step back and gaze from a distance how these characters just live their lives and feel the emotions for themselves.
 
LMD:  What is next for you?
 
HYr:  There’s nothing concrete at the moment, but I’m also a trained dancer of traditional Korean dance.  I’m preparing a performance in March.
 
This interview is cross-posted on my own site, The Diva Review. Please enjoy additional content, including exclusive photos there.
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Alan KimHan Ye-riLee Issac ChungMinariNoel Kate ChoSteven YeunYoun Yuh-jung

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