When costume designer Susanna Song learned of a film about a family of Korean American immigrants trying to find the American dream in rural Arkansas, she knew she had to be a part of it. Susanna campaigned for the job and eventually won it despite being in the business for a relatively short period of time.
In our conversation, we talk about how she won over the producers, how she reflected both American and Korean culture in her costuming, and that “interesting” choice the Golden Globes made to place Minari in the foreign film category.
Awards Daily: How did you come to the project?
Susanna Song: Actually I knew of this project through a friend of mine, Josh Bachove, who is actually one of the producers on the film. I had heard through the grapevine that he was working on this Korean-American film, and the first thing I thought was ‘Josh…why aren’t you asking me about this project?’ [Laughs]
For the record, there haven’t been that many Asian-American costume designers assigned to Asian-centric films. So, I asked him about it and at first he said that they were planning to hire a local hire, because they would come with the team. And I asked, well where is it going to be? And he said Tulsa, Oklahoma. And I just thought: there isn’t really a large enough Asian community there to find someone who will really grasp this project, and have that person be someone the film will naturally resonate with.
Apparently Josh had thought I was busy because I was working on another show called Schooled—we were just starting season two. And I literally said: I will do anything for you guys to just even interview me for this position. I had read the script and it just spoke to me, you know, deep underneath my skin. I am a Korean-American, my family migrated from South Korea to California, specifically LA, in the late 70s—so that time frame is very parallel to the time frame of the film, Minari. So I went to interview with Christina and Isaac and they both loved me, but I almost didn’t get it because I have more of a TV background than feature films. I had done two feature films before then. But then they were like, no, I’m pretty sure she won’t make it like sit-commy TV. And I reassured them—I would never do that. Everything is on the line for me to make this look as authentic as possible.
AD: This kind of leads right into my next question, which you already touched on to a degree, but maybe you can talk a little more about how personal the project was for you, because that was very much the case for (Minari editor) Harry Yoon as well.
SS: Going into this film I felt that I would learn more about myself. In our culture, we don’t talk about feelings. Even hugging—I don’t think I started hugging my brothers until, like, the past decade. So, let alone my other family. It kind of opened my eyes to how afraid they must have been when moving to a country where the culture is so different from their own, and they’d given up everything in South Korea to come here to LA. So, as a “spoiled American,” I knew of the fear but I didn’t know it intimately, in an empathetic way. And with all the research I had to do for the film, it was a life journey, kind of like a pilgrimage, working on Minari. Especially when I was looking at old photographs, thinking about all the dark secrets within a family, and why did a certain family member have to do that. When I read the script it just gave me the perspective of my parents—the jobs that they had to take that they didn’t like, and, also the reasons why they did it. Why they are the people they are. It was hard to communicate with them on a personal level, but it’s because it’s been pretty hard for them.
With this film, I could also use the perspective I had as a child growing up. I was born and raised in LA, so there is a Korean community here. But it was easy to get into the “bad crowd,” so my parents actually put me in more of a white school. I was usually the token Asian. That was helpful when dressing David and Anne–because they had to look Korean, but they also wanted to be American. David in his cowboy boots and the shorts. So, I used that perspective of how I used to dress and how my brother used to dress—and he’s now the same age as Isaac. This is probably one of the hardest projects I’ve ever done, because it touched so close to home.
AD:Because the Grandma comes over from South Korea, I think her costuming probably reflects where she just was, right?
SS: Yes. With Soonja, the grandma pants is definitely a staple of all Korean grandmas. The baggy, probably elastic, cropped pants, and then a loose fitting shirt. I wanted to pull things that looked 60s and 70s for her, because older people tend to do that—keep clothes from other decades. I have her in a butterfly collar button-down shirt with very mid-century kind of style to it. And, also, I wanted to make her comfortable. I tried to do that with everyone, across the board—I didn’t want them in polyester, because it’s so hot in Oklahoma and Arkansas. It is really hard to find a lot of comfortable 80s clothes that aren’t poly. She wanted a more loose fit as well, which I think fits perfectly well with her character, because she basically doesn’t leave the home unless she goes to church. She arrives from Korea in her church outfit—because more than likely she only had one or two church outfits. Introducing her in her church clothes gave the misleading thought that this is a proper old-school Korean grandma. The kids are tricked into believing that, and then all of the sudden she’s wearing all these bursts of different colors that match her personality.
The purpose of those livelier colors was making her pop out from when they were in the farmland or when they’re going to see the Minari—because it’s so saturated with beautiful colors. I wanted her to pop out because that was her special place, and the mountain-dew green that I picked for her came out beautifully on the film. When she had her stroke, I wanted to have all the color leave her, and get into that state where it’s just really depressing to see that someone who was giving so much light and love to these kids is now not able to do that. Now she properly looks like a geriatric grandma.
AD:Their basic family unit—mother, father, son, and daughter—they’ve been in America for a while. So how did you try to reflect Korean culture within the costuming for those four main characters?
SS: Well, let’s start with Steven. Steven had known about this project for much longer than I had, and so he already had an idea in his head. I did as well. So, in the beginning I thought, well, what if he dresses up more city in the beginning and then he transitions into being a farmer. And, the very Korean looks were more what would come from—I don’t know if they changed it—I think it was LA originally but I think they changed it to Chicago. But I thought those looks would soon change into him having shirts that were utilitarian and conservative, but still have some sort of appeal.
During the 80s the colors were loud, patterns were loud, and I wanted to stay away from that as much as possible, because I have to stay true to the family. And this goes for all of their dress—more conservative, straight lines. I made certain cuts more conservative than most would have been during the 80s. The textures are all very reminiscent of my family, how I remembered growing up and seeing their clothing. And I have a large family. My dad had six other sisters and brothers and lots of cousins.
Steven wanted to dive into being the character right away, so he was ready before he arrived. So I thought, great, I’ll just keep him in these button-down long sleeve shirts as they did the farming, and the hats, and the flat-front Dicky twill pants as well.
I had originally planned to have Steven in polo shirts, because a very normal Korean thing for men and boys to wear was polo shirts. So instead I implemented that idea with David—he wore the polo shirts. Because he’s not a normal kid: in the 80s kids would normally wear tee shirts and tanks. I wanted to give him more of an adult, almost middle-aged man kind of look, in a way. And David’s look was based on Isaac’s upbringing as well—the cowboy boots are actually something Isaac asked for when he arrived in Arkansas as a child—he actually did have cowboy boots. David’s wardrobe is so emblematic to the overall story, because his look told the story of wanting to fit in and assimilate into a new environment. You have his regular wear, but then you also have the cowboy boots as well. And he’s still wearing conservative things but still very 80s but not over the top.
For the parents, it was just trying to mix in what’s conservative and what’s utilitarian—because it wasn’t about style for them, it was more about usage and quality of the clothes.
AD:Tell me if I’m wrong here, but I can see where a rural environment like this could be a challenge of a sort in costuming. Because people have a tendency to think of the best costuming as being Merchant Ivory, or Victorian era type films. But your focus to serve this film appropriately has to be essentially plain, or maybe understated.
SS: I suppose the first thought that came to mind was picking the right colors, because we’re dealing with so much vibrant color outdoors. So, I thought primary colors. That’s why David is mostly in blues and reds, and Steven has that red hat. Also, I think I was trying to please Koreans, because I wanted them to watch this film and think “yeah, that’s what I used to wear when I was growing up” or “yeah, that’s what I wore in the 80s,” and that was my main aim. I’ve been on a few shows where they think “what would an Asian person wear in the 70s, 80s, or 90s, and it turns out they really don’t know so much. Because it’s not very recorded out there. So I think just picking the right colors and textures was really important. I went by my memory and all the references Isaac had given me. It’s hard to explain what makes something Korean and what makes it not, and I guess it’s just knowing how to pull back a little from the 80s or when to push it just a little bit more, with subtleties, but never to the point of being distracting.
AD:There’s been controversy around this movie—which is one I look at as a really quintessentially American film being placed into the foreign film category by the Golden Globes.
SS: When they announced it, I was pretty fuming actually. Because it is an American production made by a Korean-American, and there are so many Korean-Americans on this film. And, it was made on American soil. Yet, it’s categorized as a foreign film. It’s just not fair. Think of Inglourious Basterds—the majority of the movie is in French and German. So, it just doesn’t make sense. Just because I speak Korean doesn’t mean I’m not from here, or I’m foreign. I’m not foreign, because I’ve never lived outside of this country. So, it is an insult to anyone else who has that American dream as well. The other thing is that I look at the full list of nominations and the only other person who’s nominated is Emile, which is great, but Isaac or Steven aren’t even nominated. So, it’s very upsetting because I’m not foreign, I’m from here, and the film I worked on isn’t foreign.
AD:Another thing that happens, which I think you just pointed out, is that a film that gets nominated in the foreign category is almost by some extension, kind of disqualified from some of the other categories. Not officially of course, but that’s usually the way it works.
AD:To end on a positive note, though, people just love this movie. There’s not a top ten list that is missing Minari. The acclaim is coming from all sorts of corners. Especially considering your personal connection to the film, the positive response to the movie has got to feel great.
SS: I usually don’t expect the best case scenario, I always expect the worst case scenario. So when we received those awards from Sundance I was just blown away. I knew that the film was special, but I didn’t know that everybody else would also think it was special. We worked so hard on this film—we had a low budget, the weather was awful, there were a lot of bumps along the way. So it’s great that it’s gone this far, because it is a beautiful film, and that’s why we all fought to really make it work. And on a personal level, it just makes me appreciate how my family migrated here, and wanted a better future for us. And I got it. I didn’t know that I would benefit from standing on the shoulders of my parents and my family. So, it still hasn’t hit me yet. *Laughs.* It still hasn’t hit me. It is a special film that everyone could find a relation to, even if they’re not Korean-American or Asian American. Anyone. Everyone has an American dream.
Sasha, Ryan, and Clarence have been stuck with me since April 27, 2018. Co-creator (with Ryan Adams) of the Reframe feature, staff writer, interviewer du jour, and a proud member of GALECA and the Indiana Film Journalists Association. I also scribe on boxing at NY Fights. My essay "My Black Grandpa" was shortlisted as "Best of Folklore" by The Bitter Southerner in 2018. My first work of fiction, "Eat 'Em Up, Tigers!" was published in Detroit Stories Quarterly in the 2020 summer edition.