Sojung Kim-McCarthy creates Korean Americana

Sojung Kim-McCarthy comes in over Zoom from her home in Bournemouth, England. White kitchen cabinets frame her face, but beyond the confines of her house there’s a famously long seven-mile stretch of beach and Arts University Bournemouth. Kim-McCarthy got her masters in illustration at the university, and is now a permanent resident of the sleepy British seaside town. “The nickname is Sunny Bournemouth,” she says. “A lot of people retire here.” Coincidentally (or not?) the name Sojung translates to “bright waterside,” a fact that’s printed at the top of her website.

Also on Kim-McCarthy’s website: A cascade of jewel-toned, soft-focus children’s book illustrations. This winter, A24 asked Kim-McCarthy to create a series of Minari-themed postcards in her signature brushy, pastel-y style, which she creates by hand on an iPad. “Often when I’m illustrating I’m not really doing a landscape, I’m focusing on the characters and the movement of the children in the scene. So when I heard you liked the way I draw grass and plants I thought, Okay, that’s a first.”

Of the six postcards (available as a set from the A24 Shop), four prominently feature grass. After all, Minari takes place on a farm, and the titular plant is a grassy vegetable. But it’s also a movie about Korean heritage, life in America, and family. Kim-McCarthy had plenty to work with as she adapted the Yi family’s story into tiny totems of Americana.

Minari Postcard Sketch 1
Kim-McCarthy's sketches and annotations from her design process.

So what’s the secret to drawing a beautiful field of grass?

Patience. I try to create texture with different shades so you’re not just looking at a block of green. It takes more time than you’d expect to create the right sense of depth. But you just keep going, as long as you’re ready to sacrifice your wrists.

I watched a lot of James Dean movies as part of the research for this project, because in some interviews Steven Yeun and Lee Isaac Chung compared Steven’s character Jacob to James Dean. The image of Jacob on the tractor is based on Giant. Watching those movies helped me tap into the American-ness of the vast space, the big nature you can see in the background. Seeing Koreans set against a background with no mountains—in just a big field or desert—it feels really weird. In Korea, instead of saying “our land,” you say “our rivers and mountains,” because the terrain is so mountainous. You can’t look anywhere without seeing a mountain in the background. There’s this Korean novel Black Flower. It’s about Korean immigrants trying to escape poverty during the collapse of the Josean Dynasty, so they go to Mexico to work on a farm. When they arrive they see this desert with no mountains around, and it’s this alien thing to them.

Minari Postcard Sketch 3

What else did you tap into for your drawings?

I watched Minari repeatedly—like three times from start to finish, and then I’d go back in to rewatch certain scenes to get things like facial expressions. When I first saw the trailer on Twitter, I cried a bit. It felt like, Wow, finally there’s a movie about me. I’m now part of the Korean diaspora, born and raised in Seoul and now living in the middle of nowhere, and even though I enjoyed movies like Crazy Rich Asians (2018) and The Farewell (2019), I didn’t 100% connect with them. I’m not a rich Asian, and The Farewell is about a Chinese family. But Minari is about a family in the early 1980s, and my grandparents moved from Korea to America in 1980. They moved to New York, so they weren’t farming, but it was the same era and they expected things to be quite rosy, and it wasn’t. They moved back after 20 years.

Sojung With Grandparents
Sojung as a kid, visiting her Halmeoni and Harabeoji in the United States. “In my young mind, they were cool and cultured people who experienced the outside world,” Sojung says. “When I visited them in New York they fed me ice cream at the family-run Baskin Robbins.” Image c/o Sojung Kim-McCarthy

How did you choose the vignettes seen on the postcards? Some of them look close to stills from the movie, but others put the characters in imagined scenes.

One of the first things that came to mind were postcards made during the Japanese occupation era in Korea. As part of the Japanese propaganda there were postcards with Korean people on them in staged photos that portray them as uncivilized. They tend to be about how Japan built modern Western buildings and “civilized” Korean society. These postcards are inherently xenophobic, so I was very much thinking about creating new postcards that featured Korean faces as the heroes of the story.

The early moodboards featured vintage travel postcards, but when I looked up the Arkansas Tourism Board, it was hard to find any East Asian faces. It’s mostly white people; very rarely you’ll see a Black child, maybe an adult. That was a bit disappointing, having all these white faces representing the area, because only white faces are considered to be universal. So I wanted to do a travel-style postcard illustration with the Yi family.

And then, last, I saw some reactions to Minari on Twitter that treated it as a foreign movie instead of an American movie. I think in Korean-American society that was taken as a blow. In response to that I decided to use some iconic American paintings as references for creating similar scenes with the characters from the movie. One was an Andrew Wyeth painting of a woman sitting in a field, and the other was the Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving scene. That one fit because there’s that dinner scene where the family and Paul eat together.

Minari Postcard Sketch 2

Does your work often deal with these themes of Korean representation, especially as an illustrator living outside of Korea?

Normally I get the text for a children’s book and start imagining the illustrations that go with the text that’s written. They can be quite strict about the details. But this time last year I had a portfolio review with a publishing house and I was told that my style and my characters were a bit too Asian—too much like Asian cartoons—and the publishers didn’t know if my work would be suitable for the UK market. They’re British people so they said it in a very polite way, but it stayed with me. I thought about how I could change my style and try new color palettes, but... even when you’re just doodling in a natural, playful way, you’re drawing a version of your face. You see this in children, too. You draw your face because it’s the face you’re most used to. So what if I try a new style and my illustrations still end up being too Asian, because I can’t change my face? Do I have a place in this industry, or do I have to go back to Korea to make it as an illustrator?

Last fall I created some personal work for this online event called Folktale Week. A handful of illustrators organize the week and artists around the world submit work about folktales. I decided to do seven Korean folktales that I knew as a child. For a long time I tried not to include my Korean-ness in my work. I saw other artists and writers complain about how you’re always limited to talking about your ethnic background, and your perils as an immigrant. You’re only allowed in the scene if you tell the story of your struggle. Eventually I just said fuck it, I’m going to tell some Korean stories. If you like it, you like it. And people liked it. It’s interesting, because after that I got my first call from an agent.

I was told that my style and my characters were a bit too Asian… Eventually I just said fuck it, I’m going to tell some Korean stories. If you like it, you like it.

That must feel pretty validating. What’s next for you?

Eventually I want to be an author-illustrator for children's books. Some stories are already written and edited manuscripts. Others are just little memos and sketches here and there. I guess all storytellers base stories on their experiences, and my stories tend to be about being a woman and an immigrant, and a person who has a different body. I have this giant birthmark on my leg which makes me look different, even in Korea. Growing up I was treated as something different. So my stories are all about characters finding a new home away from the place they were born. It’s about leaving home, finding a new adopted family. And that journey is only starting.

Minari Postcard Sketch 5
Minari Postcard Sketch 7