Chicago Tribune (Sunday)

Kim perfect fit for ‘Minari’s’ adorable hellion

Despite never acting before, audition tape caught director’s eye

- By Amy Kaufman

Here are some things Alan Kim likes: Harry Potter. The song “Blinding Lights” by the Weeknd. Legos. Vanilla ice cream with chocolate syrup and rainbow sprinkles.

Acting? Yeah, he likes it. But he’s just as into playing video games or watching TV and going outside with his dog, an American Eskimo named Cream.

Alan is 9, so you can forgive him for not knowing if this whole Hollywood thing is for him yet. At the moment, however, he’s getting a lot of attention because he is one of the stars of the new movie “Minari,” an award-winning drama about a family of South Korean immigrants trying to build a life for themselves on a farm in rural Arkansas in the 1980s.

The movie, playing in theaters where open and on a special digital platform from distributo­r A24, features actors who are far more recognizab­le than Alan: The family’s patriarch is played by “The Walking Dead’s” Steven Yeun, and Yuh-Jung Youn — who is kind of like Korea’s Meryl Streep — co-stars as the grandmothe­r.

But it is Alan who has emerged as “Minari’s” breakout star. When the movie debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in early 2020, he turned up at every screening or interview dressed like a cowboy: Western hat, bandanna, boots and a sheriff ’s badge pinned on his suede vest.

“I had the cowboy boots from the movie,” Alan said, “and my mom was like, ‘Come on, wear this!’ ”

In his promotiona­l appearance­s for “Minari,” Alan has continued to show off his panache even over

Zoom, rotating through a collection of dapper miniature blazers and starched shirts. For this interview from his family’s home in Irvine, California, he is wearing a pastel bow tie and collared shirt embroidere­d with seagulls and boats. While he may not be used to speaking about himself yet, he is comfortabl­e on video chat. He’s in the third grade but has been doing virtual school since March 2020.

On Instagram, he has “like, maybe 2,000 followers?” — but his parents run his account because “I don’t think I’m responsibl­e enough with it.”

Perhaps it was the adoration he was greeted with in Park City last year, but Alan seemed to have an idea that those numbers might be going up soon. Asked if he expects he’ll be famous post-“Minari,” he answered enthusiast­ically and without haste: “Yes.”

And how will his life change?

“I will have to stay inside all the time,” he said. Or, if outside: “I would have to wear a hoodie and full disguise!”

In “Minari,” Alan plays Daniel, a boy whose desire to run free through the Arkansas wilderness surroundin­g his family’s new trailer is restrained due to a heart murmur. He is forced to share his bedroom with his grandmothe­r, newly arrived from Korea, who makes him try traditiona­l herbal remedies he thinks taste revolting. Director Lee Isaac Chung needed a boy for the part who could pull off being both adorable and a hellion — “a kid who pees in his grandma’s tea and still somehow doesn’t come across terribly,” he said.

So with just six weeks, casting director Julia Kim set out to find the perfect kid. She needed a child

who was fluent in both English and Korean, and, of course, one who physically resembled the actors who’d already been hired to play his parents (Steven Yeun and Yeri Han).

“As you can imagine, that’s not a long database,” said Kim. Knowing she’d be unable to rely solely on young actors with talent representa­tion, she drew upon her connection­s within LA’s Korean American community. In Koreatown, Kim visited churches and after-school programs, asking administra­tors for permission to quietly observe from a distance.

To broaden the scope of her search, Kim decided to visit the office of a local Korean newspaper. The next day, the daily publicatio­n ran a notice about the “Minari” casting call that included a photograph of Youn, 73, an actor who is revered in South Korea.

A couple of weeks later, emails started trickling in — one from Alan’s representa­tive at a boutique agency. He’d never acted before, something his audition tape made obvious. In it, Alan’s actions were exaggerate­d; when he pretended to take a bad-tasting medicine, he scowled and yelled in an over-the-top fashion.

“But I still kept watching his tape because I found him so funny,” said Chung, the director. “I was kind of worried about whether or not he could take direction, and needed to see if he could do things in a more natural way instead of a stage way. And he does. There’s such an honesty to what he’s doing.”

Alan’s mother, Vicky, was on set for the entire 25-day shoot, fanning her son when temperatur­es soared above 90 degrees and keeping his juice box collection well stocked.

Vicky used hand motions to help Alan remember his lines and reminded him not to rush, “because if the words came too fast, the scene would have to be done again,” he said she told him.

But because Alan’s mother was more comfortabl­e speaking Korean, the film’s second assistant director, Steve Hannan, became another vital on-set Alan-whisperer. Hannan — who has a son around Alan’s age — noticed early on that the young actor was becoming “a little kinetic” between takes during his six-hour days.

“So I took it upon myself to keep him positive about the whole experience,” Hannan said. “I’m a big guy, so I would put him up on my shoulder or let him crawl on my back. But I tried to talk to him like a profession­al, pointing out things about set etiquette.”

Which isn’t to say that the then-7-year-old got special treatment. Because of his experience working in print advertisem­ents, he knew that being on a set meant “he had to be serious,” Chung said.

“And we had to keep that atmosphere going for him to respect him as a profession­al,” the director said. “After a couple of days, we set the rule that no one baby talks to him or overly celebrates when he does a great take or something. Treat him like a pro, and he’s going to act like a pro.”

In June, Alan will start filming his second movie, a dark comedy called “Latchkey Kids.”

“The choices he makes now are really important,” said Kim, the casting director. “… If you have a kid like Macaulay Culkin, you keep sending them in for the same thing, and it gets stale after a while. It’s about surprising the audience and letting him stretch his wings as an actor. Alan was the perfect fit for this film, but he also has the chops to have longevity.”

“Milk Blood Heat,” the stunning debut short story collection by Dantiel W. Moniz, is populated by characters, most of them women or girls, standing on the cusp of change — or sometimes on its cliff edge.

As its title suggests, this book’s 11 stories are about human need, about intimacy physical and otherwise, and about what happens when it fails.

Moniz, a Florida native who lives in Jacksonvil­le, sets many of the stories in that sprawling city, where sometimes, she writes, “even the sidewalk seemed to sweat.”

Like fellow Florida writer Lauren Groff, Moniz writes about the darker corners of the Sunshine State, a place where, in one story, water in a decorative pool at an apartment complex is “dyed ... a kind of golfcourse aquamarine” to hide the “glass bottles, burger wrappers, used condoms, or the cigarette butts” that settle on its bottom.

Moniz writes powerfully about adolescent girls as they navigate that perilous age. The title story focuses on the bond — sealed with a blood ritual — between Kiera and Ava, who recognize something wild in each other. It’s told from the point of view of Ava, who is Black; Kiera is white, and her parents have doubts about the friendship.

As is true in many of these stories, in which most of the characters are Black, race is a factor in their relationsh­ip but just one part of its complexiti­es.

Both girls feel themselves changing into something unfamiliar. For Ava, it’s confusing but empowering: “She is Frankenste­in’s monster. She is a vampire queen. She is newly thirteen, hollowed out and filled back up with venom and dust-cloud dreams.” Kiera, too, is hungry for new experience, but she will take a shocking path.

In “Outside the Raft,” Shayla envies her slightly older cousin, Tweet, despite the fact that Tweet’s parents are in prison. Shayla is beginning to question what adults tell her, including whether God exists or is just a “story” to scare children.

During a family trip to the beach, Shayla, Tweet and two other kids are tossed from a raft into a rip current, and Shayla revises her thinking about God: “He was the burn of salt in my nose, the blueblackn­ess of the underside of the waves.”

Several of the strongest stories in “Milk Blood Heat” are about mothers and daughters. In “Necessary Bodies,” a young woman named Billie has just discovered she’s pregnant. She has a happy marriage and a supportive husband, but she hesitates to share the news with her mother — even though the mother, Colette, wants nothing more than to be a grandmothe­r.

Billie is full of doubt about whether to have a child; a trip to a planetariu­m, a random conversati­on with an old high school acquaintan­ce and Colette’s gala 50th birthday party help her figure it out.

The narrator of “Feast” finds herself pregnant, too, but she doesn’t have doubts: “This baby validated me in the same way as my master’s degree, my good credit; Heath’s getting down on one knee.” But early on, a visit to the doctor reveals the heartbeat has stopped, and months later she is still overcome with grief.

So great is her loss that she is having delusions. She struggles to relate to her husband and young stepdaught­er, and finds solace in the unlikely form of an octopus.

In “The Hearts of Our Enemies,” Frankie is the mother of a teenager, Margot. The common friction between mothers and teenage daughters is escalated in their case because Frankie has confessed to an almost-affair to her husband.

Margot scorns her mother, and Frankie can’t really argue with her. Then she notices signs that one of Margot’s teachers might be pursuing her daughter — even before Margot figures it out herself.

“She was of that special age where she knew both nothing and everything,” Moniz writes, “and no matter where or at whom she looked she saw her own reflection glimmering back like a skim of oil.”

Frankie’s fury at the man takes her to a dark place, before she devises an ingenious revenge.

 ??  ?? Steven Yeun, from left, Alan Kim, Yuh-Jung Youn, Yeri Han and Noel Cho in Lee Isaac Chung’s “Minari.” JOSH ETHAN JOHNSON/A24
Steven Yeun, from left, Alan Kim, Yuh-Jung Youn, Yeri Han and Noel Cho in Lee Isaac Chung’s “Minari.” JOSH ETHAN JOHNSON/A24
 ??  ?? ‘Milk Blood Heat’
‘Milk Blood Heat’

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