“When a costume designer represents the culture, you can see how different and better the choices can be.”
For costume designer Susanna Song, a good costume helps create an understanding of the character not create a caricature, “sometimes costume designers pick items that are very stereotypical like dragon embroidery for Asian actors. Yes, dragon embroidery is part of Chinese and other Asian cultures but why always that choice? When a costume designer represents the culture, you can see how different and better the choices can be.” After reaching out to friend and Minari producer Josh Bachove, insistent the film’s costume designer was someone who understood the period and cultural background of the story- she booked the job.
Susanna’s family immigrated to America from Korea in the late ’70s. Like her own family, she imagined Minari’s family, “had their clothes for a very long time, classic pieces, hand washed and kept really well.” This inspired Anne and Monica’s costumes, “I wanted Anne to have pieces that were on the edge between the ’70s and ’80s. Monica would have probably given Anne hand-me-downs, she saved them for her daughter because that’s how Koreans think.”
Although the film is a semi-autobiographical story of director Lee Isaac Chung’s life, he did not want a complete likeness to his family in the characters. “My brother is the same age as Isaac and I looked through our family albums. I contacted all of my cousins to send me their childhood photos. I created a visual board from this and shared it with Isaac,” she says.
Susanna started collecting vintage clothing for the film in L.A. and on location in Oklahoma, “My mission was to get all the vintage pieces I could. It was a little tough in Oklahoma because they had an abandoned mall. I even drove down to Oklahoma City for vintage pieces. I wanted to make it as accurate to the period as possible.”
Steven Yeun had the script for Minari for some time and already had ideas for Jacob’s wardrobe. “I had just bought all these pieces for Steven, but he just wanted seven outfits he could rearrange. He wanted his look to show he was committed to being a farmer and didn’t want so much of the city in his character. It makes sense because his mission in the film is to provide for his family and he shouldn’t be worried about what he wears,” says Susanna.
Isaac’s only specific request to Susanna was David’s cowboy boots and striped socks. “That is what Isaac wanted as a boy in Arkansas,” she says. Some of Susanna’s favorite moments on set were playing with Alan Kim (David) between shots, “he would chase after me, I would say, ‘we can’t play because you can’t wrinkle your clothes.’ He would just jump on my back and I would end up holding him on my shoulder. He is just so adorable.”
Costume designers are an essential part of any production, sometimes arriving on location before other crew. The first one on set, Susanna would arrange costumes before the electric department arrived to turn on the lights in her trailer. Much of the clothing in the film is one-of-a-kind, “I carried them around like babies,” she says. After wrapping for the day, Susanna would stay and do laundry, “It was so hot, and I couldn’t just spray to disinfect the clothes. The cast had been sitting in this horrid heat and I just had to wash it for them.”
After the intense 25-day shoot Susanna, “realized all the things I had taken for granted before as a spoiled American kid. Why were my parents so serious all the time, it made me realize how difficult their lives were. It was a journey I didn’t think I was going to take while working. It was such an unusual experience because it is based on a family like mine and many of the other crew members.”
Watch Minari now in theaters and VOD.
Photo courtesy of Susanna Song