Han Ye-ri on her life and the beautiful existence of her character in Minari
A wild sense of possibility has drawn a steady stream of people to America for centuries. Some come out of circumstance, escaping war-torn countries to a place regarded as the cornerstone of freedom. Others come to while away under its spacious skies or stake a claim among its vast lands. Still, most, if not all, come for the hope of something better—for their children, for their families, and themselves.
Enter “Minari,” a movie that follows the story of the Yis, a young Korean family trying to get ahead as farmers in Arkansas in the ‘80s—a time where many destitute Koreans came to the United States to chase the American dream. Minari is an edible parsley-like plant that grows everywhere in Korea, and it has interconnected roots that take at least a year to grow with very little moisture. The movie uses Minari as a metaphor for the immigrant experience, where faith and hope are difficult but persistent, unearthing a poignant portrayal of the Yi family’s struggle to put down roots in a place that is, despite all of its grand promises, unforgiving and unyielding at times.
In the movie, Monica, played by South Korean actress Han Ye-ri, is a wife and a mother to two young children. Her brilliant portrayal of Monica as a woman torn between supporting her partner and putting the wellbeing of her children first is what truly grounds the film; her emotionally precise performance helps us relive the memories of our mothers and their sacrifices. Here, we chat with Ye-ri about her upbringing, her personal journey to discover Monica’s character, and what she’s looking forward to.
Talk to us about your childhood. How were you like as a kid?
As the oldest daughter in my family, I tried to take care of my brothers and sisters. But I was actually a very introverted child and cried a lot. When my teacher asked me to read out loud or asked me questions in class, I’d start to cry and get shaken up.
So I started attending a dance academy when I was around three years old. Dancing helped me feel more comfortable in my skin and comfortable with speaking my mind. Eventually, the introvert in me went away, and I became more outgoing.
Did you always have aspirations to become an actress?
I continued dancing as my major in college. When I was a sophomore, I got an opportunity to do a dancing scene in a short film project my friend, a film major, was doing. That was the first time I discovered acting, and I quickly fell in love.
I started working in short films and moved onto independent films until I reached the age of 30. I thought it was challenging to be both a professional actor and dancer simultaneously, so I considered quitting acting. I had to make a living, and I didn’t want to stop dancing. It was then that I met the management company that I’m with now. They actively supported me in keeping my career in both worlds, and since then, I have been working widely in commercial films and dancing.
You played the role of Monica Yi, a Korean immigrant, wife, and mother. Tell us some things about her that resonated with you.
The script I received for Minari was in Korean, but it was only a first draft and the first translated version, so it wasn’t easy for me to understand Monica at the depth that I wanted to. I felt like I needed to meet with Director Lee Issac Chung as soon as I could to discuss Monica’s character. After speaking with Isaac, he came across to me as a genuinely great director, and I felt no significant gap between his portrait of Monica and mine.
Monica and I share similarities in that we hold up very well in the face of difficulties—but I admit that she’s much stronger than me. While I was portraying her character, I remember thinking that I would probably run away if I were in the same situation. So we’re alike, yet different at the same time.
“Monica and I share similarities in that we hold up very well in the face of difficulties—but I admit that she’s much stronger than me. While I was portraying her character, I remember thinking that I would probably run away if I were in the same situation. So we’re alike, yet different at the same time.”
Were there any aspects of Monica’s character or life that you initially found difficult to understand?
I had to ask Monica why she chose to stay with Jacob constantly. I felt like I would only truly understand Monica after going through the journey of looking for the answer to this question.
The answer I found was simple yet profound: love. Love was the most significant part of Monica. It was what drove her to follow Jacob, what drove her to stay, what drove her to get up each day. It was only then I started to understand everything Monica was going through and resonated with her. Also, I could think of many women who lived Monica’s life—women that I knew of, women that were close to me, or women in my life. I took the memories of them in portraying the role of Monica.
The movie is a semi-biographical account of Director Lee Issac Chung’s memories of growing up and building a life on American soil. When it came to learning more about Monica and creating her world, what kinds of conversations did you have with him?
Isaac shared many stories of his childhood to me—conflicts of his parents, his mother’s love, memories of his sister. These stories weren’t that different from mine. Because although he grew up in America, he has strong Korean sensibilities, and I felt he was raised just like a Korean kid. I could feel and understand the way his mother was while raising him. In that sense, I thought maybe the Monica that Isaac was drawing in the movie could resemble my mother that I remember from my childhood.
One critical relationship in the movie is the one between Jacob and Monica. While it feels like the movie centers around Jacob fulfilling his dreams, what is it about Monica that makes the viewer empathize with her?
While Jacob was pursuing his dreams, Monica sacrificed herself for the family not to break up. That sacrifice had its roots in her love for her family, and through that, I believe the children were able to grow up in a better environment. This kind of mothers’ sacrifice is a universal emotion that we are aware of from so many others’ experiences, which may be why Monica gained a lot of sympathy from the viewers.
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“The answer I found was simple yet profound: love. Love was the most significant part of Monica. It was what drove her to follow Jacob, what drove her to stay, what drove her to get up each day. It was only then I started to understand everything Monica was going through and resonated with her.”
Of the five main characters, it seems like Monica struggles the most with adjusting to and finding acceptance in a new land—do you empathize or relate to that struggle of not belonging?
Monica’s struggle might be because she was not in a place she wished to settle down. She was the loneliest person in the family, and she couldn’t communicate with anyone while taking care of her children at home. During those struggles, she still had to support Jacob, raise two children, and care about the family’s future. Because Monica was in a situation that she didn’t choose to be in, I think accepting everything around her would have been like giving up.
Monica’s emotional arc as a character is so beautifully layered and complex. She has so much love for her family, yet you sense a repressed tension throughout the movie as she tries to navigate her love and bitterness towards Jacob. How were you able to portray these nuances in her character in such a pure, earnest way? Did you draw on anything personal to bring these subtleties to life?
It wasn’t easy for me to take on the role of Monica and draw from my own experiences because I’m not married yet and don’t have a child. But as I took a closer look at her, I felt her affection towards Jacob as she remembered him shining brightly when they were in Korea, dreaming together over the years for better opportunities in a foreign country. But even with all that love, she might have felt that their reality was harsh, tiring, and lonely. And this is the portrait of so many women during that time, immigrant or otherwise. In that sense, it was easier to draw from the collective experiences of women in that era rather than the single character of Monica.
What do you think the movie asks its viewers to think about?
This film tells you about the power and will to live life. Even though we’ll all face hardships, I genuinely believe that we can make it through it all because there are plenty of beautiful things to unearth in every moment. When all is said and done, it’s really about the company of the people journeying through life with us.
What do you hope viewers will take away from your character and the movie?
I hope that audiences can relate to Monica’s sacrifice and love that nourished the growth of her two children. I also hope everyone remembers where they are standing now by reflecting on Monica and Soonja; without someone’s sacrifice, I believe we couldn’t be here. In particular, my generation was able to live the life that we are living now thanks to our parents’ generation’s sacrifice, which let us receive better opportunities in life.
Among all the six nominations that the movie received, Yuh-Jung Youn is the first Korean actress to be nominated and win an Academy Award in the Oscars’ 93-year history. What was the reaction like from the public in Korea? How did that feel for the entire cast and for you personally to see your castmate win?
Even though Yuh-Jung Youn is already very well-known as a great actress in Korea, it’s been amazing to see her get recognition and love from so many people internationally. With this nomination and win, so many people in Korea share the joy that Yuh-Jung Youn is now recognized all over the world for how accomplished and lovely she is. I am so happy for her and respect her so much as a fellow actress. I hope I can follow the path that she has walked through, step by step.
With the success of Minari, do you have aspirations to pursue more roles outside of Korea? What are your plans for the future?
I don’t want to feel rushed. Above all, finding a good role would be the most crucial next step. If I get the chance to play an interesting character, I would love to challenge myself and give it a go. But first, let me work on my English!
What parts of this journey that you’re on right now have surprised you, and where do you hope it’ll take you?
The people. The ones along this journey were the most amazing part of it all. I learned that when good people get together and do their best with sincere hearts, they’ll receive a greater gift than expected. In Korea, there’s a saying that “good films are made by themselves.” Minari also seems to be made by itself. Thanks to Minari, I’ve received so much love. So I think what’s left for me now is to remember this moment and enjoy it.
Minari now available on demand.
Watch the trailer below.