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The Many Lives of Steven Yeun


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I told Yeun that I had been struck by what he said about how being Asian-American meant that you were constantly thinking about everyone else, but nobody was ever thinking about you. But maybe his kids might be able to grow up without this debilitating awareness?

“I don’t want to eliminate all of that questioning for them,” Yeun said. “But I hope they’ll be more unlocked than me and less traumatized. But for me, the [expletive] nature of that statement is that it implies a lack of agency about it, like our brains are just hard-wired to consider others. I think that’s probably still true of me and our generation, but I don’t think it’s, like, fate.”

I’m familiar with what he’s talking about. It feels like a light but constant tinnitus; you’re aware that it’s there, but you also figure out ways to tune it out and just kind of get on with your life. I know, for example, that being a “race writer” comes with assumptions about the true literary value of your work, which then makes you want to write about anything else, which then raises those recurring questions about who is steering the ship. All that is exhausting and counterproductive. Better to just be Amy Tan and accept the country and your role in it for what they are. Today I write almost entirely about race and identity, although not exactly by choice. My job — even what you’re reading now — is part of my career of explaining Asian-Americans to white people. It’s fine. But even if it weren’t, what am I going to do about it?

When the trailer for “Minari” appeared online this past fall, I texted the link to a Korean friend. She said she wasn’t sure she could watch the film because those two minutes seemed almost too accurate, too close to some memories she had left interred. When I went online to read others’ reactions, I saw similar responses, not only from Asian-Americans but also from Latino and Black immigrants as well. I understood where they were coming from. The trailer suggested an intimacy that made me deeply uncomfortable. Yeun plays a struggling young father who reminded me of a version of my own father that I had shelved away. What was life like for him as a young immigrant with two children? I witnessed his frustrations, of course, but I can only see them today through an inoculating hindsight that tells me that while our situation might have presented us with difficulties, our struggles matter less than other struggles. This might be a sensible tack for me to take — I speak perfect English and live comfortably — but it has wiped away the memories of my father when we arrived stateside. What was he thinking?

At its core, “Minari” is a straightforward and exceedingly honest movie about a Korean-American immigrant family that moves from Los Angeles to Arkansas. Jacob Yi, the patriarch played by Yeun, grows tired of his work as a chicken sexer, a job that mostly entails taking baskets of newborn chicks and sorting them by gender. He wants to start a big farm that will supply produce to the thousands of Koreans who are immigrating to the United States. Jacob’s wife, Monica, played by Yeri Han, has reservations about her husband’s ambitions, but she goes along as he sows, irrigates and plows a cursed plot of land.

Yeun’s character is a departure from any of his previous roles. But Yeun also sees it as the culminating point in his career to date. If he never had to hone his Korean for “Burning,” for example, he might not have been able to passably play a native Korean speaker struggling with his English. It also presented Yeun with an opportunity to reflect on his own father.

“My dad had a tough time, I think.” Yeun said. “As the patriarch, I’m sure he had to go out and touch the world a little bit more, which made him very distrusting of people. As a Korean man, it had to be hard to come from a collectivist country that, you know, predicates your worth on who you are and what position you hold, to a place that also has those types of hierarchies but you just don’t know what they are.”

www.nytimes.com 2021-02-03 10:00:04

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