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Minari: Living the Korean American Dream

By Gary Foss | January 28, 2021

Minari: Living the Korean American Dream

’80s clothing iconography has many fashion atrocities: ladies’ jackets with shoulder pads fit for a linebacker and businessmen in glaring “power ties” that should have had radioactivity warnings. Sweatbands were considered hip if you can imagine, and the spandex stretched from coast to coast. But those of us who lived through that decade may remember a calmer period. For most people, the decade’s uniform was really about just making your way in a world of ambition.

The American dream is on full display in Lee Isaac Chung’s semi-autobiographical film Minari . Costume designer Susanna Song’s commitment to the project was as personal as it was professional. She knew the film was hers the day she read the screenplay. “There isn’t another Korean American film about the American dream. This is its first kind. There are similarities between this family and mine because my family immigrated to California in the late seventies.”

 

Of course, she still had to convince the producers. “They said, ‘She does a lot of TV, and we don’t want it to look that way.’ They were afraid it would look too sitcom-y. I reassured them, I’m a Korean American. I lived this culture. My family didn’t dress the way most people think of the ’80s, the big shoulder pads, the bright neon colors.”

Authenticity was particularly important for such a personal story. “I sourced from my own family. My eldest brother is about the same age as Isaac, so I went through his photo albums and Polaroids. Other Korean American people on the production—actor Steven Yeun and Christina Oh, who is the producer—would chime in too. So I had plenty of different resources. Of course, everything got Isaac’s approval but I interpreted it my own way. That was great. He had confidence that I could do that.”

Making each of the characters distinct involved a lot of interaction with the actors. “Steven was obsessed with his red hat. I said, ‘I’m going to dirty it up. I’m going to damp down the color. Don’t worry, it’s still going to be bright.’ That was his amulet. I’m glad that we made that choice because I feel that if we didn’t have that red hat, everything else would have been even more muted.”

The result is a look that Song relates directly to her own background and experience. “I wanted to dress the kids differently from the parents and the grandmother because the kids were born in the US. I could relate to that because that’s what my parents wanted for me too. The first thing I told Isaac was I’m going to put David in primary colors, mainly in reds and blues. He was just so vibrant and his personality is just so noticeable and irresistible that I had to put him in these stronger colors.”

Monica (Yeri Han) also wore outfits that reference Song’s upbringing. “There’s this poly polka-dot skirt matched with a blue blouse that had a little tie in the front. That is what my mother wore in the eighties. I would always try to yank down her skirt because it was just so fun to play with. That was a little nugget of my childhood.”

In a film of notable characters, Soonja (Yuh-Jung Youn) stands out in particular. Foul-mouthed and eccentric, her banter with her grandson is one of the central dynamics of the film. Song knew her clothing had to set up that relationship for both the characters and the audience. “I wanted to trick the kids into thinking she was this very conservative, religious, proper grandma who baked cookies and did chores. So she arrived in her best church outfit because every Korean has their best church outfit. Then all of a sudden, she’s in these vibrant shirts, because she is a fun-loving person. And as an older woman, she would probably hang on to some older clothes. People were still wearing clothes from the sixties and seventies, especially older people. I said to Isaac, ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if she started wearing David’s socks?’ That’s what we did because the character would do that.”

The response to the film has been as surprising as it is gratifying, particularly when it comes to the clothes for David (Alan Kim). “I get a lot of compliments about his wardrobe. I can’t take all the credit for it because that is what Isaac wanted when he was David’s age. These little striped polo shirts or his dolphin shorts. He asked his mother for cowboy boots and that’s what they gave him. I feel that it’s emblematic of the overall story, wanting to fit in and assimilate to a new environment.”

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