Sojung Kim-McCarthy’s Minari postcards are the illustrator’s way of “showing my solidarity to diaspora communities”
Commissioned by A24 to create six postcards inspired by Lee Isaac Chung’s acclaimed film, the illustrator talks us through her delicate but powerful illustrative process.
- Lucy Bourton
- 5 May 2021
When Sojung Kim-McCarthy graduated from her visual communication degree in Seoul, she – like many others – spent some time hopping around studios “while trying to figure out what to do with the rest of my life”. Following a stint as the team leader “with no team members” at a children’s magazine, some internships and part-time projects, Sojung realised that, really, it was illustration where her heart lay; a realisation ignited by a former tutor’s advice that “what you do when no one else is watching will make who you are”.
Sojung had in fact always loved illustration’s many outputs, growing up reading comics or drawing her own, “thinking I would always be someone who draws or paints,” she explains. Choosing to study design as her parents “decided that artists make no money” and, “as a Korean kid, I was my parents’ investment,” Sojung’s decision to pursue her craft was purely personal – the thing she did “when no one else was watching and no one told me what else to do”. In 2010 she moved to the UK to finally study her craft as an MA at Bournemouth, “and never went back to Korea”.
This weaving creative journey of Sojung’s has led to a self-described versatile style of illustration. Predominantly now working as a children’s book illustrator, her projects jump and mix various approaches to illustration, a combination of how her education taught creative styles with entrance exams in mind, and her experience of working with briefs as a designer. Themes however are more consistent, exploring “identity, immigration and belonging in the illustrations and the stories I make,” she tells It’s Nice That. It means that across her works are endless illustrative details to pick up on, from the way she can draw expressions, character, narrative and, in the case of one of her most recent collaborations, her ability to draw blades of grass.
Spotting this specific ability in Sojung’s work was the team at A24, inviting the illustrator to create a series of postcards upon the release of Lee Isaac Chung’s stunning film, Minari. A surprise to Sojung, the team loved her previous work depicting various Korean stories she’d made for Folktale Week in 2020, a moment that thrilled the illustrator “because it was the first time I actively incorporated my Korean identity in my work,” she says. Specifically it was Sojung’s ability to evoke mood in growing landscape pieces, ideal for a film where the Arkansas landscape signifies so much in “a tender and sweeping story about what roots us,” as A24 describes.
Ahead of hearing from A24 directly, Sojung had already seen a trailer for Minari. In just a two-minute short clip, the illustrator felt a personal connection “mainly because I’m constantly navigating my identity as a first generation immigrant, and also because I missed my grandparents,” she reflects now. Another factor was “of course” her love for the actors in the film, as a fan of Steven Yeun “since his days in the Walking Dead” and Yeri Han’s “intense acting in Nokdu Flowers”. Coincidentally Sojung grew up watching Yeo Jung Youn, and even rediscovered a memory where the actor appears in the same TV drama as the illustrator’s mother, “another little connection I personally had with Minari”.
Working with a relatively open brief from A24, Sojung and the team decided to create six postcard illustrations highlighting scenes from the film. Offered a link to the feature, keywords, names and a mood board of vintage postcards, Sojung headed into the project with themes in mind, “but they left a lot of the direction and details to me,” she describes. Embedding herself fully in Lee Isaac Chung’s narrative, Sojung watched the title repeatedly, taking screenshots of the details she felt warmth towards and watching several interviews with the cast. “Making these postcards sometimes felt like making an elaborate fan art,” adds the illustrator.
Whittling it down to 20 thumbnail sketches, the final six postcards illustrate some of the specifically tender moments from the film. Sojung’s emotion is felt in each, especially when you think back to how she was missing her grandparents in works like Chilli Powder and Anchovies or Walking with Halmeoni. Despite being stills, for those who’ve watched the film (and if you haven’t, stop what you’re doing immediately) the illustrations instantly jog the memory of a scene in your mind, leading your imagination straight back into Arkansas with the Yi family.
Managing to create this connection with a viewer in just six pieces is an ability driven by Sojung’s deep consideration of the film. Finding that her first thoughts while watching Minari “was that it was so American,” her paintings unpick this feeling. “The themes like finding and taming the land, fighting the violence of Mother Nature and pursuing a man’s dream all reminded me of old western movies,” she continues. “There was a Korean-ness that seeps through too, of course, since it is a story about a family that originated from Korea. But the film wasn’t about immigrants being marginalised or struggling over their identity, as in some other recent films featuring Asian-American immigrant experiences. Rather, Minari was telling a story about a family, and the family happened to be of Korean heritage.”
With this feeling towards the film in mind, part of the illustrator’s research centred around Arkansas. Knowing little about the state, “other than that Lee Isaac Chung grew up there,” Sojung sought out a sense of the place via its tourism promotion. Finding that the majority of people appearing in photos were white, “I tried to see if there are images where Asians were featured as the hosts (because I thought you can host and welcome guests only if it’s your home and you’re recognised as a good enough member to represent your community) but I failed to find any,” explains the illustrator. “Of course, that doesn’t mean there are no Asians who call Arkansas home – it just means that their existence is erased.” In response Sojung created the vintage-style postcard Welcome to Arkansas, featuring Anne and David Yi with an artfully tucked bottle of Mountain Dew under his arm. The other postcards were also influenced by iconic American paintings, like Christina’s Dream by Andrew Wyeth through to a poster for the James Dean film, Giant. While delving into this context for her pieces, Sojung adds that she was creating the works simultaneously with a debate around why Minari was placed in the Foreign Language Film category at the Golden Globes, and so “making these pieces was my way of showing my solidarity to diaspora communities”.
With Minari and Sojung’s accompanying postcards now released, the illustrator hopes that fans not only see her work as “a humble tribute to such a great film,” but also evoke a wider understanding of the film’s context. “If there’s one thing I hope these illustrations would help you know is that we, immigrants, and our languages, belong. We are here. We have been. In a way, I feel sorry I had to say this through the illustrations for Minari because the film itself did such an elegant job of telling a human story without shouting from the roof about our perils. Lee Isaac Chung’s writing is so above and beyond it. There could’ve been so many different discussions and discourses around the film, but I feel that so much time and energy from the minority communities are being wasted in order to defend our citizenship,” the illustrator concludes poignantly. “Hopefully, we’ll look at these postcards one day and think what an obsolete and ridiculous idea it is to have to argue that people belong in their own homes.”
Sojung Kim-McCarthy: Minari Postcards for A24, Jacob and Monica (Copyright © Sojung Kim-McCarthy, A24 2021)
About the Author
Lucy (she/her) is the senior editor at Insights, a research-driven department with It's Nice That. Get in contact with her for potential Insights collaborations or to discuss Insights' fortnightly column, POV. Lucy has been a part of the team at It's Nice That since 2016, first joining as a staff writer after graduating from Chelsea College of Art with a degree in Graphic Design Communication.