When composer Emile Mosseri and director Lee Isaac Chung began talking about the music for “Minari,” Chung’s reminiscence about his Korean family’s struggle to succeed at farming in Arkansas, they decided what the score shouldn’t be: overtly Korean or American in style.
“No twangy guitars or harmonicas,” says Mosseri of the A24 film, which had an Oscar-qualifying run last month and will get a wider rollout starting Feb. 12. “It wasn’t specifically the immigrant story that we were trying to evoke. It was more the idea of childhood memory. Isaac wrote a deeply personal film: an immigration story, an American story, but also just a story about his childhood. So the music has this dream-memory kind of quality.”
Producer Christina Oh, with whom Mosseri had worked on the 2019 film “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” for which he delivered a breakthrough score, introduced him to Chung and offered him an early reading of “Minari.” “I fell in love with it,” Mosseri says, “an incredibly beautiful, poetic script.” He would eventually visit the movie’s Oklahoma locations (his wife, by coincidence, is from Tulsa).
He began writing before shooting, “just melodies and themes that were in the spirit of the film, that felt emotionally connected.” Chung was listening to those early demos during shooting, and editor Harry Yoon began to cut them into the film, which stars Steven Yeun as Jacob, Yeri Han as his wife and Noel Kate Cho and Alan S. Kim as their children. “They were extending certain scenes to fit my music, and the music has room to breathe as a result,” the composer says.
The “Minari” soundscape is unique. Mosseri’s early piano and voice demos wound up in the film, he reports. He then doubled his piano with a detuned acoustic guitar, which provided “a more organic, earthy feel,” and added a strange and unexpected sound to the mix: the theremin-like tones of a 1980s Korg synthesizer.
“I wanted to combine organic elements with synthetic ones,” he explains. “It also gives us an instability. There’s a bit of a struggle with this wobbly kind of unsturdy sound. The film has this undertone of love and family, but also [a] deep struggle and frustration and pain that is so powerful and so real.
“The goal was to have this warm beating heart — sort of the glow of the human soul — but also dissonance and strain,” Mosseri continues. He added a 40-piece string orchestra (recorded remotely in Macedonia) so “the strings, the synth and the voice helped round out that approach.”
The film concludes with the lullaby “Rain Song,” also written by Mosseri and sung in Korean by Han, who plays Monica in the film. It conveys “a hopeful message of rain creating a new day,” Mosseri says. And the idea of a lullaby to Monica’s son, David — through whose eyes so much of the film unfolds — felt right to both composer and filmmaker.
Mosseri explains, “ I was free to let that sound reveal itself to me in the experimentation process. I had written this melody for the opening of the film that I wanted to mirror in the end credits to bookend the story with a nostalgic tune. I had written a song in English and sent it to Isaac with the idea that we’d translate into Korean and find a singer who was up for it.”
He adds, “Isaac had mentioned that Yeri has a beautiful voice and our friend, the brilliant Stefanie Hong, translated my song into a powerful poem about life and rebirth. The vulnerability and beauty in her voice brought the song to a whole other level. She breathed new life into it and the song itself was reborn.“
The song was a global production with Han singing it in Korea and sending her vocals to Mosseri in Los Angeles who then built the final track.
Mosseri’s fondest moment? Watching an early cut of the movie with Chung and Yoon and thinking, “Oh wow, he made a movie about his mother, about his father, his grandmother. I wasn’t prepared, emotionally, for how hard the film was going to hit me. That was a profound life experience.”