In Minari—the film is named for a wild herb that resembles parsley and grows like a weed—Han portrays Monica, a young Korean woman whose husband, Jacob, played by Steven Yeun, drags his wife and two small children to a stretch of unsettled farmland in rural Arkansas. They are later joined by Monica’s mother, portrayed by industry veteran and national treasure Youn Yuh-Jung, whom Han affectionately refers to as sunsaeng-nim, the Korean word for “teacher.” “Among the crew, there were non-Korean immigrants and children of immigrants,” Han recalls. “They said that even though they couldn’t understand a thing”—much of the film is in Korean—“they still understood everything.”
Of the five main characters, Monica struggles the most with life in Arkansas. “Jacob found his dream in America. Monica didn’t have a dream; she simply came with him because of love,” Han says. She drew from stories of immigrant wives in the ’70s and ’80s, particularly of Korean women who left their own families behind, never to rejoin them, and were expected to be subsumed by their husbands’ families. The character initially existed only as loose brushstrokes in Chung’s script. But with Chung’s encouragement, Han fleshed out the role into something powerful yet restrained, calling upon the shape of her mother, her aunt, and her grandmother. “She is so talented and honest, and was able to communicate the depth, resilience, and power of Monica,” says Yeun. “She was always truthful as an actor, and I had ultimate trust in her.” The film, which is based partially on Chung’s life growing up on a farm in Arkansas, took home both the U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize and the U.S. Dramatic Audience Award at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. But it was Chung’s father’s appreciation of her performance that stuck with Han. “That was the most meaningful,” she says.
“To me, Minari asks, ‘What sort of land must people find in order to thrive?’ ” Han says. “In the end, a home can be made anywhere.” She has made her own in Seoul, where she lives in an apartment in the northeastern part of the city with her younger sister and spends her time engrossed in films and books—recently Christopher Nolan’s Tenet and Thoreau’s Walden—or practicing the Korean folk dances she learned as a child. When asked if she plans to capitalize on Minari’s success and shift her own home to the States, she shrugs. “I don’t want to plan too much. I just want to find good stories, good characters, and let things grow naturally.” A little like minari.
Minari is available to stream on A24’s virtual screening platform, beginning February 12.