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Make the Case: The Restraint of Steven Yeun in ‘Minari’

He’s one of Hollywood’s most charming actors. What makes his performance as a struggling patriarch Oscar-worthy, then, is the way he rejects that innate talent.

A24/Ringer illustration

Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari is an ensemble film, with every member of the Yi family (and each actor portraying them) participating in and creating the complex dynamic that evolves inside the house-on-wheels they all come to share. The movie flows between the different perspectives of the characters with ease and dramatic precision; Chung’s writing, too, is subtle yet clear, with tonal shifts that always feel both natural and intelligent. The film’s beauty truly results from all its different parts working together in harmony.

But within this delicate film about familial love and hope, Steven Yeun has a difficult job to do, one that he executes expertly. He is the movie’s tough core, its cold and hard dimension. After his first role in Korean in Lee Chang-dong’s critically acclaimed Burning, where he played a potential psychopath who could hide behind his smiles, here Yeun steps into the shoes of a man who acts distant but does have a heart. Jacob is a Korean father and husband who’s been taking his family around 1980s America trying to make it, and when we meet the Yis, he’s driving them to Arkansas, where he hopes to grow a successful agricultural business. His wife, Monica (Yeri Han), is highly skeptical; tensions rise. Jacob seems to be neglecting her opinion, and even the well-being of their two young children who haven’t had a chance at a stable childhood. Yeun appears selfish, stubborn, and almost cruel. His character seems to be doing all of this just for himself.

Actors are trained to feel—they learn to recognize both their own and other people’s emotions and, more importantly, to allow themselves to experience even the most difficult ones. The challenge for Yeun in Minari is to resist his feelings, because that’s what Jacob does, often to an extreme degree. Early on, the couple fights about their new living conditions, and Jacob screams at his wife until she turns her back on him to say, in a shaky murmur, that their relationship may be doomed after all. Yeun flinches a little, but almost immediately looks away, as though he were unable to really accept what Han has told him. Refusing to take in this threat, Jacob is a wall, and won’t even try to reassure Monica. He recognizes her distress, but can’t bring himself to confront it head on. We get the sense that it isn’t the first time Monica has had to say such a thing to get her husband to listen to her, nor the first time that his response was denial. The following morning, when Monica tells the children that she and Dad have found an agreement and Grandma is moving in, Yeun appears only briefly and skips breakfast, unwilling to expose himself to questions from his children about the night before.

This isn’t to say that Jacob is unfeeling—his off-screen discussion with his wife after the fight makes that clear. He is connected to his children, in particular to David (Alan S. Kim), to whom he tries to teach his strong principles of independence and logic. Yeun becomes playful when he talks to Kim about his great plans for their Korean vegetable farm, reacting to the boy’s natural childish charm with the abandon of a proud father. Jacob also accepts the help of Paul (Will Patton), a man pushed to the brink by loneliness and religion who perhaps needs the work more than the farm needs him. But with this warm stranger, Jacob is awkward and uncomfortable; Patton lays all of his feelings out at all times (he often turns to the sky to scream thanks to God), while Yeun seems to be fighting to keep all his in. When the first crops arrive, he makes a point of congratulating Paul for his hard work, to the man’s utter delight, but he lets himself smile for only a second before saying “OK, enough!” and returning to his task.

That task is the very reason why Jacob doesn’t spend much time in his feelings, or considering those of others: The success of his farm is his priority. Like many driven immigrants (here’s looking at you, Dad), but also like any fiercely ambitious person, he is willing to sacrifice his and his family’s immediate comfort for the sake of potential happiness in the long run. Portraying Jacob therefore requires Yeun to believe in that enterprise with extreme fervor. But Yeun, a naturally sensitive actor, makes Jacob’s stubborn determination especially hard to accept. He brings his warmth and his ability to connect to others to the role, only to obstruct it, or rather to deviate it toward that ambition. While Yeun leaned into his sensibility to appear creepy in Burning, here he resists it, letting it only seep through occasionally and almost accidentally, like when Jacob offers Monica that they go to church so that she can make new friends. She herself is surprised by his sudden care for her loneliness, and by his willingness to go to Sunday service despite his more pragmatic view of life. She’s learned not to expect him to be too concerned for her feelings.

It would be simplistic to call Minari a film about that elusive American Dream. The tribulations that the family faces slowly shift the focus from the crops to the couple itself, and how they handle those challenges. For Monica, the basis of all their hard work and sacrifices needs to be the family: They have to stick together no matter what and be as happy as possible while they try to reach for financial stability. But Jacob has things in the reverse order: The farm needs to work for the Yis to be fulfilled. As problems pile up, the film becomes more personal, with Yeun and Han’s dynamic veering closer and closer to an irreparable rupture even as Jacob and Monica learn more and more about each other’s sense of priorities.

One night, Jacob suddenly and affectionately turns to Monica and tries to reassure her, promising to take care of their family. But in the same beat, with calm resignation, he also tells her that if his latest endeavor fails, she’ll be free to leave him and take the kids. Yeun’s behavior here is more caring and self-effacing than ever: He looks down, unable to look at her, like a knight laying down all his defenses and accepting the painful consequences of his bold, perhaps reckless actions. Yet in Monica’s eyes—and maybe in ours, depending on where we stand—he also comes off as incredibly selfish and cowardly. Even as Jacob recognizes that Monica doesn’t share his fixation on his business, his solution to this disagreement goes against everything she believes in: He is willing to abandon her. Han’s reaction is subtle as she collects her thoughts, and she doesn’t reply. Yeun remains silent and doesn’t look at her. From his point of view, he’s opened his heart and has said all he had to say; now, the ball is in her court.

Chung’s writing manages to show the two different timelines that Monica and Jacob follow. The ambitious husband lives on borrowed time—he sees the present as the future’s courageous slave, and patience and resilience are all that matters. But Monica feels the strain that living for hypotheticals puts on her life. She knows that all they know for sure is the present, and that placing all their bets on the future is equivalent to not having any faith at all. The future is unknown and full of surprises and pain; it can’t be trusted. And therefore, neither can Jacob: No amount of money could ever make their family safe from his abandonment, because a bad crop could always be around the corner. When Monica confronts Jacob with these truths, Yeun’s eyes get watery, but no tears can form and he can only acquiesce. Jacob’s blunt facade is only cracked, perhaps because he knows his wife is right.

Amusingly, while Yeun’s character in Burning was a suspected pyromaniac, Jacob eventually finds answers in fire. All the fantasies that he relied on to place himself above everything—his family, his own feelings—are destroyed and his heart is laid bare, pure and clear. Time stops, with the future now impossible to fathom, and Yeun’s instincts are finally freed. His vulnerability expresses itself directly, without avoidance or fear, as Jacob holds Monica with all the gratefulness he forgot—or denied—he had for her. As Jacob, Yeun takes on a deeper role, one where the qualities that make him endlessly watchable are constrained, only to be released in a beautiful yet bittersweet ending. He creates a character who isn’t simply and reductively likeable, but rather complex, imperfect and still endearingly human.

Manuela Lazic is a French writer based in London who primarily covers film.