As a second generation Korean American himself, Minari is a true passion project for editor Harry Yoon. Minari, the story of a Korean immigrant family trying to make a living off the land in rural Arkansas, is in a way a pioneer story. It’s also a true passion project for many working on the film, including Yoon who told me, “I feel like my whole life has prepared me to edit this film.” In our conversation, we discuss the influence of Terrence Malick, the use of restraint in editing, and just what makes Minari such a true American story.
Awards Daily: I just want to start off by saying what a beautiful movie this is, and such a quintessential American story.
Harry Yoon: Oh, I love that you said that. Thank you, David.
AD: Well, I’m not sure everyone thinks of it that way, but we’ll get into that.
HY: [Laughs] Definitely.
AD: Before we do, how did you come to the project in the first place?
HY: I was introduced to Isaac through Christina Oh, our producer. I had worked with Christina on another Plan B project called The Last Black Man in San Francisco, and we really bonded during the interview about our respective Korean-American backgrounds. We were both children of immigrants, and we both made the unusual decision to go into the film industry. We talked about what that was like—even going as far as to say how guilty we initially felt about choosing a riskier career when our parents had sacrificed so much to bring us here. But, thankfully things worked out, and it felt wonderful to meet another Korean-American who’d made that difficult decision and was flourishing. She called me while I was on Euphoria, and she said, ‘I get a lot of Korean-American scripts, but this one is really special, and I really think you should edit it.’ And, you know, you dream about getting calls like that from a producer. So, I talked with Isaac, and I think we both recognized a kind of artistic and cultural brother in one another. I was very lucky that he said yes, and we just hit the ground running from then on.
AD: I was looking over your filmography and I’m glad you mentioned Last Black Man in San Francisco, which I know you were an additional editor on. It was one of my favorite movies of that year. I also saw that you edited Detroit as well. Minari is so incredibly different from those other two films that you worked on. What was your approach with this movie considering what your previous work had been?
HY: That’s a great question. Detroit was trying to put you in an immersive, historically accurate, but also kind of psychologically accurate place. You feel the time crawling when you’re with those people up against the wall in the hallway, which is the kind of central event of the film. And Last Black Man is very much about the relationships the characters have, not just to one another, but to a place—to a city—and I think that had its own special considerations. On the other hand Minari is like a collection of memories that add up, ultimately, to a feeling about family, and how precious it is. I know that Isaac began with writing down memories from his childhood and that was the basis of the script. What was wonderful was that normally those memories are done just from the perspective of the second generation—the child—but because Isaac had just become a father himself, and his daughter was the same age as David is in the film, he could approach the memories not just from a child’s perspective, but also the young adult perspective of Jacob and Monica, the two parents in the film.
We wanted to present that collection of memories in a way that built an emotional arc that carried you through as an audience, but not one that was slavish to plot or to incident, as the way that you were drawn into the film. So I think some of the slower cutting, the more meditative nature of the way we allowed scenes to play out sometimes in one shot before going into coverage was all to sort of root you in that sense of: I’m watching this moment that’s so specific, that feels like a memory. And, not necessarily propelling you into the rest of the story, but just kind of lingering in a way that hopefully elicits that sense of memory for you as well as an audience member. What’s been remarkable for us is that while these memories are so specific to the Korean-American family and culture—for example that scene of unpacking a suitcase with specific ingredients and things like that—they also resonate with people and create explosions of memories of their own childhood. For example, I have a friend who, after watching the movie said, man, it just brought me back to when I used to watch wrestling with my grandmother—and he’s a Latino immigrant. So hopefully it does what it’s designed to do, which is to help you live and linger in those moments in such a way that you have your own memories of family and about how precious they were for you.
AD: Well, it does work that way. It’s a pretty universal story in some ways, even with its specificities. I was born in Kentucky, so my way in, very easily, was through the south and through these rural areas I remember and through the struggle of trying to make ends meet, which was very much a part of my life too. So I didn’t find the specificity of it being a Korean immigrant story to be any sort of barrier. Speaking of rural areas, what was it like to walk onto this set and see what you’re going to be editing—just the geographic space you’re going to be working with—when it’s so different to the city spaces you were working with before?
HY: I think the land became a character to us, particularly through Emile’s music. We actually got a very rare chance to work with his music before pre-productions, so he actually composed a couple of suites that laid out some of the themes in the film. Particularly one cue called “Tall Grass” really got at the DNA of how Jacob in particular sees this land: the possibilities. He describes it as he wants to build the garden of Eden. That kind of woke us up, and woke me up, to how important certain sequences were going to be in terms of conveying that sense of optimism, as in one of the first montages where he starts to drive his tractor and dig furrows into the land for the first time. Looking for these moments that could really convey the magic of that place—and so choosing a shot of the kids exploring amongst trees, which felt mysterious.
Choosing the moment when the furrows are dug and this wisp of mist emerges from the ground. Trying to capture that sense of possibility and wonder. And I think it began with the music, but also Lachlan Milne’s beautiful cinematography and Yong Ok Lee’s incredible production design, I think gave us the ability to linger in shots and to choose shots that felt more evocative of that kind of wonder than necessarily just cinematically grand for their own sake. So I think that was certainly a factor. and then In terms of the plainness, that’s where I feel also the production design and the cinematography did such a beautiful job in allowing us to linger in frames and I wanted to honor that. I talked about that unpacking scene, the reason that we hold so long is not only is it a beautiful frame, beautifully composed, but I think the production design is so specific and wonderful—and then the performances that the two actors are giving are so lived in.
The way the grandmother is interacting with the mom you feel like you’re watching something that has happened many times before and when you have that kind of stuff to work with I think the editor’s job is to honor that experience and to be able to not cut sometimes. So that’s an instance in which within a scene I think you have to show restraint, but I think one of the interesting things—and this is jumping ahead in the process a little bit—is because it’s a collection of memories, and because you want to make sure that the audience feels involved, but not necessarily gets bored while you’re lingering in certain places, the overall challenge of the film editorially was to show just those moments that would give you a sense of where the characters were at the time, and to remove everything else that got in the way of that.
To get to that sort of very muscular, elegant place where you could track, beat by beat, the emotional journey that the characters were on—and sometimes there are weeks and months between scenes—but just that and no more. And I think that’s one of the reasons why the film feels kind of compelling throughout. We cut over thirty scenes, large and small, in the film. And I think that’s sort of what made this film a little more challenging and a little more interesting editorially. Because plot isn’t necessarily driving your editorial choices, it’s the sense that you are in the most essential moment, you are in the most essential memories to understand what this family is going through, but not necessarily lingering there to the point where you’d lose interest or not constantly be leaning in.
AD: Tell me if this is a bit of a reach, but I was thinking when I was watching Minari that, at times, if you take away the voiceover and eccentricities that are specific to the filmmaker, it’s not all that unlike some of Terrence Malick’s work. I don’t know if that’s any kind of a touchpoint for you, but that occurred to me.
HY: Without question it is. One experience I had that I think is very evocative of the way Terrence Malick cuts his films is —he loves accidental juxtapositions. In fact, I had a friend who worked for him on Tree of Life and she said her job at night was to go in and randomly cut out chunks of what the other editors had cut, to see if the collisions that happened were interesting, and she would save those collisions in a separate bin so that the editors could look at it the next day. That’s what we found happened in Minari as well — when we would remove certain scenes or certain sequences, we found that the juxtaposition, the collisions that happened, were so cinematically evocative to sort of in a particular way give a consistent experience of this is what the family is experiencing together, even if they’re not in the same place there are little cinematic cues that show you that when David is sleeping over at his friend’s house, for example, as much fun as he’s having there’s still something that ties him to the concern that Monica has when she’s by her mother’s bedside in the hospital. Lighting cues, movement cues, when you place those shots and moments side by side, there’s a little cinematic magic happening that unites those characters, and I think finding those was one of the best experiences of cutting this film
AD: We alluded to performance here and one of the things I think is beautiful about the film is that there really aren’t a lot of what you’d call “go for the Oscar” kind of scenes. It’s a very observant film where you almost feel like you’re eavesdropping on the characters. How did you edit for these performances where sometimes glances are just as important as conversations?
HY: Two things come to mind. One is, I feel like my whole life has prepared me to edit this film, because I think not only do I understand and have been trying to immerse myself in the American idiom and sensibilities—to understand when a line reading or a performance runs true—but I grew up understanding the Korean idiom—speaking with my parents, having gone to a Korean-American church and things like that. So, being able to understand when a performance or a line reading rang true for Korean-Americans for Koreans as well, and being able to bring that to bear on choosing line readings and performances along with Isaac I think was something that life prepared me for. In addition, I think the performances and how lived in they were, particularly in what wasn’t said, helped us editorially to remove dialogue and to remove sometimes pages of dialogue that were redundant with what we already understood of the characters because of those lived in performances.
So, for example, at the hatchery when Jacob is outside talking to his son David about how great the farm is, there was actually another page of dialogue where he went into his backstory about how they used to have a farm in Korea, and that they lost it, and how precious this is for him—but there’s just this pause that Stephen Yeun in his performance has after he says, ‘Yes in California we had nothing,’ and there’s just this look that he gives that says how much this means to him. It was being able to trust that that was conveyed in the performances by these actors that gave us the courage to lift lines that would have told the audience the same thing over again.
AD: I guess it’s the difference between showing and telling to some degree. If you have a great actor like Stephen who is able to show that on his face without you having to give all the details, that’s wonderful to take advantage of that.
HY: Absolutely. And having a director like Isaac that has been making films for ten years, he’s not like a first-time filmmaker that doesn’t trust what he’s done. Obviously there are wonderful first-time filmmakers, but it’s much more difficult for them to absolutely trust that the audience will understand the most elegant form of conveying an idea, because you know they haven’t been through that gauntlet of screenings, and having their film debut and things like that in the same way. So I think that what’s so wonderful about having worked with Isaac, this was not his first go-around and this was an opportunity for him to really show everything that he had learned cinematically up to this point.
AD: There’s a way this movie could have been made that could have made Monica come off as very antagonistic, but she’s actually just very practical in her concerns. She reaches this conclusion about where things should go for this family, what needs to happen next, and then we have the fire—the most disastrous thing that could happen. Then we see them at the end, and the film doesn’t give you the sense that everything is solved, but that some bonds are stronger than disaster.
HY: Yes, exactly. In the end I think what the fire teaches or reminds them is that it’s the fact that they’re together that is the most precious thing. And I think both of them realize how important that is. And I really love the image that Isaac shot for that, which is, there’s a request that Jacob makes early on is ‘Why don’t we all sleep on the floor together’ tonight when they first move in, and that comes full circle at the end of the movie that they’re actually together. I think that image calls back everything that they’ve gone through, to me it’s such an emotional image.
Despite it all, they’re still there, they’re still bonded together as a family. The gift that Isaac gave in telling this story is that it’s not told from one perspective , but there’s a balance of perspectives, there’s a defense of each perspective that I think makes one feel the complexity of what it means to be in this family. And I think that’s what makes the ending of them staying together that much more satisfying.
AD: I also just wanted to say, Yeri Han as Monica is a performance that I feel has been a little bit missed* in this awards talk. She is wonderful in this film and I think the editing really allowed that performance to come through, letting that performance breathe. As a mama’s boy, born in the south, named David, she’s the one who got to me. [Laughs]
HY: I really appreciate what you’ve noticed about the film, because I agree with you. More often than not it was her performance that made me cry actually [Laughs] while I was editing the film. In certain line readings you really got the sense of the years of what Monica had been going through. Like, when she sees her mother for the first time, she just says this simple line of like, ‘It must have been so hard for you to travel so far.’ There’s a poetry there. like, that line is so pregnant with meaning. Like, she’s evoking her own experience, she’s evoking the distance that has been between them, both in terms of geographical distance and time, and there’s a way that she just pauses, it’s just—yeah, it’s just a remarkable performance. I couldn’t agree with you more that it feels overlooked, but I really do hope that there will be other opportunities for Yeri Han for people who see this and maybe consider her for other roles that might be appropriate for her language skills. She’s incredible.
AD: The fire scene, requires a different kind of editing than most of the rest of the film, for obvious reasons . How did you approach that scene so that it would still feel a part of the total work.
HY: I think technically what was great was that Isaac and I got to talk about – I was able to participate in a conversation with Isaac and Lachlin and the producers about how they were going to shoot the scene. There was some talk initially of CG fire instead of burning down the thing down. Thankfully as, somebody who has been an FX editor, I knew what the limitations were cinematically of doing that. You can’t just linger on something like that in the way that we knew that we needed to, and so technically it was great to be able to participate in that conversation and to really be emphatic about how important it was that they actually burn down the barn. And once we got the footage, the exterior shots were just so gorgeous, and so the editorial challenge there was how much is too much and to make sure you get exactly what you need but not be too indulgent. I think it’s better when there’s spectacle to withhold rather than to linger.
With the interior of the barn, the challenge was to take what was necessary and balance it with time and safety, limited coverage, and make sure that you got the sense of drama that was going on between Jacob and Monica at that time. To make sure you understood the peril that they were in, and understood also emotionally where Jacob lands in finding that he can’t find Monica. And to make that believable and make that feel pressing. So those were the set and editorial challenges in cutting the fire. Then also tracking what was going on with the other characters outside like Soonja, and then David as he experiences a kind of catharsis. We have to get the sense something changes within him when he sees dramatically what’s going on at the barn but also sees that his parents have united again in their sense of purpose as well as survivors. I think something clicks for him, and I think is what propels the emotional climax of the film of him chasing after Soonja. There’s a lot that needed to happen and I think that was definitely one of the most important and challenging sequences of the film
AD: I think what was really great among many great things in Minari is the way they connected to some degree to the challenge of mixing with a culture you don’t really understand and doesn’t understand you, but also you see how bonds can be formed. Like Will Patton’s character. You can make an argument that he is objectively kind of nuts [Laughs] but there’s a kindness and a sweetness there that comes through, and a decency, in spite of all his affectations. I think that’s true of anyone who moves anywhere to some degree, and certainly true of the immigrant story, which is the American story. I assume that was very personal for you
HY: Absolutely, I think what I loved about the film was how iconic it felt in terms of the way that we understood what pioneers were. Like, the pioneer narrative of getting a piece of land, and living out the American dream in that way, there’s almost a kind of American mythological overtone to what Jacob was doing, bringing his family through hardship and living on the land and finding water, and all of those things felt like—I remember watching Little House on the Prairie and those were the concerns that they had too, like how do we make a living off the land and how do we find a place in this community.
Obviously this is based on Isaac’s life story, but one of the things that Asian immigrants have had to grapple with is this sort of perpetual foreignness that people see them with. Even if they’ve been here for multiple generations we can still be told to ‘to go back to our country.’ But this is our country. I really feel that in having a story that I think taps into that kind of very American narrative of creating a homestead and finding a place in the community, but having it with Korean-American immigrants, that Americans will see Asians as American, and can identify with their struggles and see that there’s not a whole lot that really makes us different.
AD: I think that was some of the underlying frustration that some have had, including myself, about the Golden Globes decision to place Minari in the foreign language area. This is about an American family in America who just happens to speak another language as well as English, right?
HY: I just hope that the discussion that has emerged about Minari in relation to the Golden Globes just encourages everyone to see that a story, even if it’s not in English, can be a very American story. Awards categories aside, if it does that, then I’m very happy that the controversy happened. Because this is a very American movie, about Americans, and I hope that people can see that in the film and will watch the film with those eyes.
AD: It must be fabulous to see the film receive the sort of acclaim it’s getting. You’re not missing a single top ten list, you’re coming up in every awards discussion, I know that’s not the only reason why you do this, but the success of this film has to feel wonderful, especially considering your own background.
HY: Absolutely. Like I said this is the kind of film that I’ve been hoping to work on for all of my career. To be able to contribute to telling a story about the Korean-American experience and how American it feels. It’s been wonderful to see it get out to a broad audience and to hear people appreciating it for its central message of how important it is and how precious family is. I couldn’t be more excited.
*Note: On the day this interview was conducted, the Independent Spirit Awards nominated Yeri Han for Best Supporting Actress. Serendipity.