The Invisible Artistry of Asian Actors

Steven Yeun, Alan Kim, Youn Yuh-jung, Yeri Han, Noel Kate Cho, Michelle Yeoh, and Dev Patel
Josh Ethan Johnson / A24 / Moviestore Collection Ltd / Alamy / Carolyn Cole / Getty / Adam Maida / The Atlantic

Only when he began editing Minari did the writer-director Lee Isaac Chung see exactly how much his cast had done for the story. The film, about a Korean American family starting a farm in 1980s Arkansas, was inspired by his childhood, but Chung told his actors he didn’t want them imitating anyone he knew. So instead, they brought their own interpretations to the characters and made Chung’s tale theirs, too. “It’s easy when you have these actors, and every take is good,” he told me over Zoom last month, chuckling. “You have nothing bad to work with.”

Yes, Chung is overflowing with praise for his cast, whom he thanked in his acceptance speech after Minari won a Golden Globe for best foreign-language film on Sunday. But he’s concerned that one actor isn’t seeing enough appreciation: Yeri Han, who plays Monica, the anxious wife of Steven Yeun’s idealistic Jacob. “In the editing room, she was the one who we were always centering our emotional story around,” Chung said of Han. “It’s her face, it’s her looks, and the way she picks at a bedspread because she’s upset. These little, subtle things that we knew: ‘This is making the film what it is.’” He paused. “And unfortunately, it’s invisible.”

Recommended Reading

Invisible is a curious word to apply to Han, whose restless energy and abundant warmth are a constant presence in the movie. She flits through her family’s new trailer home, tidying up and parenting her kids, David and Anne (played by Alan Kim and Noel Kate Cho, respectively), all while trying to contain her fear as her husband gambles with the 50 acres of land he bought. Yet Chung has reason to worry that Han’s understated performance is being overlooked: Hollywood has an unsettling history of ignoring Asian actors for awards, even if their projects are critically acclaimed.

Last year, Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite became the first foreign-language film to win Best Picture at the Oscars. But despite the film’s six nominations and four wins, its stellar all-Korean cast was snubbed, igniting a conversation about the movie industry’s long-standing disregard for Asian actors. In the past, other films with Asian-led ensembles, such as Slumdog Millionaire; The Last Emperor; Life of Pi; Memoirs of a Geisha; and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, had similar awards-season runs, racking up trophies for technical excellence—and sometimes even Best Picture—but, bafflingly, none for acting. “It does hurt inside, because you feel you are not validated as an actor,” Michelle Yeoh, who starred in Crouching Tiger, told me in 2018. “Your peers did not think your acting should be considered, even though your movie is considered for all these things.”

Even before its release, Minari became the latest film to join this pattern. Because its characters speak more Korean than English, the movie could be submitted only as a foreign-language film at the Globes—despite being a thoroughly American story. Critics argued that such categorization framed Minari as less prestigious than the films in the main best-picture fields; others pointed out that the foreign-language movies don’t have their own dedicated acting awards. Last year’s The Farewell, a movie with an Asian American protagonist, was nominated as a foreign-language film, which forced its star, Awkwafina, to compete for best actress in the comedy/musical category. Despite the odds, she became the only Asian American woman to win that award in the Globes’ 77-year history.

As more creators of color break through and tell different kinds of stories, Hollywood’s snubbing of Asian actors is becoming especially obvious and newly urgent. The past year has seen an increase in violence toward Asians in America, after former President Donald Trump started calling the coronavirus the “Chinese virus.” The real world is, of course, inextricable from Hollywood: Some of the stereotypes that activists say contribute to anti-Asian sentiment have been perpetuated by the industry for decades. Asians have often been portrayed as “a racialized horde” on-screen, a mass of indistinguishable faces; in the U.S., they tend to be treated as “perpetual foreigners,” which helps explain why Asian American actors are exoticized in a way that white performers in non-English-language films are not.

Within Hollywood, part of the problem is that voting bodies for awards are largely white and regularly put forth mostly white slates of acting nominees. (The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has been working to diversify its membership, and a recent exposé in the Los Angeles Times called out the homogeneity of Globes voters.) Minari’s victory on Sunday bodes well for its Oscars chances; after all, last year’s foreign-language-film winner at the Globes went on to nab Best Picture. If performances by Yeun or Han, or by Riz Ahmed in Sound of Metal, receive Oscar nominations later this month, it could mean that Hollywood is finally seeing Asian actors as artists, whatever language they speak on-screen. Again and again, Hollywood has deemed their work unworthy of accolades. This year, with Minari, it has a chance to undo some of that damage.

After my conversation with Chung, I revisited Han’s performance in Minari, paying closer attention to her delicate gestures, to the subtleties of her line readings. As I watched, I realized how much her work tapped into my own memories. When Monica is fussing over the gochugaru and myulchi that her mother, Soonja (played brilliantly by a lively Youn Yuh-jung), brought from Korea, I see my own mother grappling with the guilt of leaving her family behind in Shanghai while also appreciating a taste of home. When the white women at church call Monica “cute” after meeting her and she chuckles uneasily, I see my younger self reacting to a comment that seems kind but feels wrong. Monica hums with a sense of someone trying to accept her new life while carrying an uncertainty that she can’t shake.

In Minari, Han navigates tricky, emotionally nuanced territory without the sort of melodrama or outsize performances that Hollywood tends to reward. “There are no loud speeches or anything,” Chung told me. “It’s just her being.” That’s the work that all actors do: the very act of being, which can range from emphatic to muted, animated to lethargic, impassioned to impassive. Asian performers are certainly versatile enough to capture that range—and yet tropes such as the “inscrutable Asianhave caused some casting directors to think of Asians as “not very expressive.”

The pervasiveness of such casually racist myths—the inscrutable Asian, the perpetual foreigner, the racialized horde—is foundational to the invisibility of Asian actors during the Hollywood awards season. Given this backdrop, it’s little wonder when a quiet performance like Han’s is overlooked. Even the Parasite actors, who delivered vibrant and highly distinctive performances, were often treated as an ensemble of Korean faces when spoken of by Western media; their names were misspelled in write-ups, and they were addressed hesitantly on red carpets. No wonder Bong called the Oscars, considered the most prestigious awards ceremony in the world, “local.”

On the surface, Minari is the sort of film that both Oscar voters and general audiences love. “The immigrant story is the backbone of Hollywood,” says the sociologist Nancy Wang Yuen, who studies inequality in the industry. Films about aspirational characters, from 1927’s The Jazz Singer to 2015’s Brooklyn, have been popular with American moviegoers, she points out. However, one wrinkle is that the Asian and Asian American experiences are uniquely defined by fragmentation, and encompass dozens of languages, countries, religions, and ethnicities. “The notion of being Asian is a verb, not a noun ... we are so diverse on every axis,” explains Bing Chen, a co-founder of Gold House, an organization that advocates for Asian talent. It’s impossible, Chen told me, for any movie, even one with an “all Asian” cast, to capture the complexity of that identity. Indeed, Chung bristles at the way his film has been portrayed as representative of Korean American life: “I feel like [the Golden Globes controversy] goes much further than ‘Minari is an American film,’” he said. “I don’t know that that [statement] in and of itself captures everything that I feel.”

This fragmentation poses a challenge to a movie industry that has historically stuck to a handful of stereotypical narratives when telling stories about people of color. Over time, moving and intimate but flawed films such as The Joy Luck Club and The Namesake came to be seen as genuine depictions of entire communities, taking on a “veneer of authenticity,” Sean Metzger, a theater professor at UCLA, told me. In the rare instances when the Academy Awards recognized actors of color, they tended to gravitate toward comfortable tropes—for instance, rewarding Black actors when they appeared in films about slavery and Latino actors when they played subservient roles or criminals.

For Asians, one of the earliest films with this “veneer of authenticity” was 1961’s Flower Drum Song, a musical set in San Francisco’s Chinatown. The movie was based on a novel by the Chinese American author C. Y. Lee and marketed as a “genuine” look into the Chinese community, but it was adapted by the white writers Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein. And though the film scored several Oscar nominations, its entire cast of Asian American actors—including Nancy Kwan, who performed the song “I Enjoy Being a Girl,” since then a regularly covered hit—went unnoticed. Like a restaurant patron ordering a favorite dish on almost every visit, American storytellers became accustomed to using Asian culture as a spectacle, rather than a subject. And when they weren’t being replaced altogether by white actors in yellowface, Asian actors were relegated to supporting roles, melting into the margins.

In the 21st century, Asian performers have taken on more prominent and nuanced roles in film and TV. Still, as with other actors of color, when Asians are recognized, it’s for types of roles or narratives that voters find familiar. Look at Dev Patel’s Oscars history: The British actor wasn’t nominated for 2008’s Slumdog Millionaire, which heavily featured Bollywood influences—an aesthetic unfamiliar to many white viewers. But Patel was nominated for playing an Australian Indian adoptee in 2016’s Lion, which some critics saw as a white-savior tale. The Japanese actor Ken Watanabe wasn’t nominated for 2006’s Letters From Iwo Jima, but got a nod for his work in 2003’s The Last Samurai. The former was told in Japanese, from the perspective of Japanese soldiers in World War II, but the latter was a fish-out-of-water story that centered on Tom Cruise and featured Watanabe in a wise-mentor role. That’s not to say those weren’t deserving nominations, only that awards voters seemed to prefer performances that echoed what they’d seen and enjoyed before.

In the realm of film criticism, a predominantly white profession, writers commonly miss the cultural and artistic nuances of Asian performances. Yeun, Minari’s most recognizable actor to American audiences thanks to his work on The Walking Dead, dominates coverage of the film, and is usually described as portraying an ambitious dreamer rather than a man barely containing his rage, which was how Yeun saw his character. In an early scene, Jacob grunts goodbye to his children without looking at them as he leaves the trailer, leaving Monica to pick up the pieces after their fight the night before. Yeun captures his simmering anger and frustration in these slight, but not imperceptible, choices. “I told the Minari team—and I mean not only the cast and crew, but also [the studio,] A24—my concern about Steven’s performance is it’s so good in Asian-father nuance that I worry most non-Asians [in voting bodies] won’t get it,” Chen said, referring to the way that suffering hardship silently is valued within some Asian communities.

In telling a story like Minari, Asian actors must find a delicate balance between realism and craft, and to do so, they often draw on their own experiences. As a result, Metzger told me, Asian performers in particular run the risk of being seen as “recording” real life, rather than realizing stories “invented for cinema.” That work of entering a character’s headspace can thus take a toll. At a January screening of Minari, Yeun cried as he spoke about the effort that went into embodying Jacob. “The pain of making this film was not just the difficulty of the circumstances,” he said, weeping. “The most difficult part was being caught in the middle, balancing the Korean way of doing things and then the American way of doing things.”

Since the Golden Globe category controversy took off in December, Minari has been on an upward trajectory, scoring acting nominations from the Screen Actors Guild, the Critics Choice Awards, and the Independent Spirit Awards. To speak of awards is to speak of a sliver of the industry and to perhaps overstate their importance, but given these nods, the film’s actors have a shot at the Oscars. “Will it be great? Absolutely,” Chen said of a potential nomination. “Will it be enough? It never will be.”

Minari is about a family learning to see themselves differently, and their story helps us question not just what we see, but also how we see it. Art should be inherently empathetic, providing windows into the new and unexpected, and audiences of all backgrounds must figure out ways to wrestle with their own conditioning, as Chung did early on. “The single most eye-opening experience for me and what propelled me to become a filmmaker was that I started to see films from other countries,” the director told me. “I just felt something stirring up within me, of being a human being for once.”

Chung’s actors brought that humanity to his set, even without his family as a blueprint for them to reference. They imbued their characters with the empathy his tender story required: Yeun interrogated his relationship with his own father to unearth Jacob and mold him into the fully formed, wary, but willful man on-screen. Han drew from a faint memory of her mother to understand Monica, then created a woman burdened with worry and the duty to maintain a facade. Such an approach meant “freedom,” says Youn, whose performance is often singled out as Oscar-worthy. She told me that she steeped Soonja, who starts a garden of the titular Korean herb, in an acerbic wit after thinking of how her great-grandmother used to react to her antics as a child.

On set, the cast formed a familial bond of their own. “Come to think of it now, it’s just a miracle that happened to us!” Youn said of that personal connection, laughing. “We didn’t mean to do it! It just happened.” Working on Minari, as a result, felt unlike Hollywood filmmaking, liberated from industry expectations. It felt timeless.

As Chung worked on Minari, he didn’t think of the audiences that would view it in 2021. “I tried to picture someone watching it 20, 30 years from now, to be honest,” he said. By then, he explained, such a viewer would be freed from “a lot of things that we are worried about now, that are not going to last”—things like what “best” means, how we label movies, and who gets to do that categorizing. All Chung wants is for every part of his film, from the storytelling to the performances, to linger in a way that proves art’s resilience—like, say, a weed growing along the banks of a creek, flourishing in spite of everything.