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Steven Yeun’s Perfect Accent in “Minari”

Steven Yeun recently made history as the first Asian-American to receive an Oscar nomination in the Best Actor category, for his role as Jacob Yi, a South Korean immigrant who relocates to rural Arkansas in the nineteen-eighties, in “Minari.” Although Yeun’s performance has been described with the strings of praise usually given to Oscar nominees, there is an integral quality to his acting—without which the film would lose its delicate verisimilitude of immigrant life—that has not been widely celebrated: Yeun’s accent, both when he is speaking English and when he is speaking Korean.

One way to look at Yeun’s film career in the U.S. and in South Korea is as a series of meta-castings. The actor was born in Korea but grew up in Michigan, mainly speaking English. He played a Korean-American boyfriend with a knack for malapropisms in the South Korean film “Like a French Film,” in 2015. (“Your Korean is really bad,” one character says to him.) In Bong Joon-ho’s film “Okja,” from 2017, he is a klutzy translator whose deliberate mistranslation provides a key plot point. In “Burning,” from 2018, Yeun is a mysterious character with lethal charm named Ben—a hint of ties to the West—whose voice never rises above the soothing murmurs of a psychopath (which Ben presumably is). Though the role required Yeun to act in Korean, the skill demanded was not so much phonetic expressiveness as an ability to bracket each moment with an unvarying tone that reflects Ben’s muted insanity. “Minari” presented Yeun a dual challenge: speaking Korean with a “perfect” accent, with full tonal shifts, and speaking accented English like a Korean immigrant would.

Anyone who has studied a foreign language understands the difficulty of making jokes in a non-native language. But what’s more difficult is credibly vocalizing one’s anger: fighting without losing tension or embarrassing oneself. There is an indelible passage in Chang-rae Lee’s novel “Native Speaker” in which the incensed immigrant father of the protagonist is described as bursting out “some awful stream of nonsensical street talk, shouting ‘my hot mama shit ass tight cock sucka,’ ” which, in real life, would turn the speaker into a target of ridicule or pity. The passage is also a reminder that, when immigrants remain silent to insults, it’s not because of submissiveness but because of a language barrier that prevents them from freely yielding to anger. Early in “Minari,” there is a scene in which Jacob and his wife, Monica (Yeri Han), get into a heated argument, in Korean. Underneath Yeun’s performance, you can sense a high-wire act of carefully metered speech—a scene of unhinged anger that depends on internal restraint. Yeun delivers this dialogue, each inflection and syllable, flawlessly.

Throughout his career, Yeun has been open about his fraught relationship with identity and his ambivalence toward taking up Korean-speaking roles. In one interview, Yeun revealed how shooting “Burning” became “an identity issue.” He said, “Am I able to switch that switch, and go in there, and pretend as if I am not Korean-American? Can I be fully Korean in that place?” In a highly watched segment of a South Korean talk show, Yeun describes the sense of displacement that he feels both in the U.S. and in Korea as akin to being on an “island.”

In a recent profile of Yeun by Jay Caspian Kang, the actor again shared his concern about his Korean accent, specifically in “Minari”: “I’m still justifying the accent in my own head. I’m sure I’m going to get a lot of people giving me [expletive] about it, saying, ‘That’s not what a Korean dad accent sounds like.’ ” Admittedly, South Korean media and its memesphere have not been kind to Korean-American actors whose Korean is deemed to be lacking. (One frequently picked-on example is a segment of the TV series “Lost” when Daniel Dae Kim acts in Korean.) Perhaps the acute anxiety that many Koreans have about accents has something to do with how, in Korean, we don’t say someone “has an accent.” We say that their “pronunciation (bareum) is bad.” Defined in terms of inadequacy, an accent becomes not a feature of your speech but a flaw.

I am a native speaker of Korean. I say this not to bring attention to my fluency or claim any spurious authority over the performances in “Minari” but to confess: I’ve always been aware of the traces and inflections of my first language in my English. So, during an initial viewing of “Minari,” I knew that the alarming level of attention that I paid to Yeun’s speech, both in Korean and in English, said more about my self-consciousness than about his performance. Although, I should add, I wasn’t watching it in the manner of a fussy speech therapist but of an anxious gymnastics fan, hoping for Simone Biles to nail her Olympic floor routine.

The launch of TV shows and films such as “Fresh Off the Boat,” “Crazy Rich Asians,” and “The Farewell” has meant that a more diverse array of Asian-American experiences are coming to find representation onscreen, but ensuing debates about accented performances have often generated more heat than light. The Canadian show “Kim’s Convenience” is a likable sitcom that follows the travails of Korean family in Toronto. When the show began, like with “Fresh Off the Boat,” the cast had to respond to its share of humorless reactions from those who claimed that accented performances were offensive and, of course, helped perpetuate racial stereotypes. The cast proudly stood by their decision. (Jimmy O. Yang similarly defended the accent of his Chinese immigrant character on HBO’s “Silicon Valley.”)

When I watched “Kim’s Convenience,” I didn’t find its accents offensive but, rather, endearingly funny. Still, with all due respect to the creators, the show’s characters, oblivious to the finer nuances of the actual pronunciations of non-native English speakers, remain unconvincing to the very non-native speakers whose lives they portray. (Just as Dick Van Dyke’s Cockney accent in “Mary Poppins,” despite the film’s virtues, failed to charm certain segments of the British audience.) But it’s not a criticism to say that the show, just as a sitcom should be, is more committed to the paralogic of comedy than to the principles of hyperrealism.

In “Minari,” however, both Korean and English dialogues—from pronunciation and cadence to diction and colloquialisms—are superbly acted: Jacob calling his wife not by her first name but, rather, the mother of their child (“Ji-young umma”); the way Monica profusely apologizes for her English abilities (”I’m sorry, my English is not so good”); the mannerisms with which Jacob and a Korean grocer conduct business. When the grandmother, Soonja (Yuh-jung Youn), spews out untranslatable Korean profanities while slapping down a red-and-black Willow card from a hwatu deck, it felt so dead on point that I gaped before laughing. As Youn revealed in an interview, she and Yeri Han provided help translating the Korean-speaking parts of the script (originally written in English) into colloquial, everyday Korean.

As someone who grew up in Korea—and, hell, even had to spend two years doing mandatory military service—I had long been blind to the uneasy relationship that many second-generation Korean-Americans have with the Korean language. With the kind of self-fixation particular to transplants in an alien country, I was preoccupied with the way that non-native English speakers with accents are easily written off. So it took me years of listening to the likes of Yeun that I came to understand this: Koreans with accented English and Korean-Americans with accented Korean are just mirrored vectors in the vast plane of identities, both moving toward the same point—someone at ease with being a person of Asian heritage in America.

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