Uprooted: Writer/Director Lee Isaac Chung on Minari
The following interview appears in Filmmaker‘s current Winter ’21 print edition and, a day after Minari won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film, appears online for all readers for the first time.
“There’s a difference between something having happened or something being true,” says writer/director Lee Isaac Chung about the interplay between memory and creation that graces his fourth dramatic feature, Minari.
Based on the filmmaker’s childhood—his family moved to the South, where his father hoped to develop a farm—Minari captures a time of familial change and uncertainty with seemingly effortless poetry and wonder. It’s the early 1980s when Jacob Yi (Steven Yeun) drags his family from California to a mobile home and plot of distressed farmland in Arkansas, where he’ll grow Korean fruits and vegetables. Until the farm is up and running, Jacob and wife Monica (Yeri Han) do rote work in a chicken hatchery, “sexing” the chickens. For Monica, the move from Los Angeles, coupled with the potentially quixotic nature of her husband’s ambition, is a shock. For the children—Anne (Noel Cho) and the youngest, seven-year-old David (Alan S. Kim), whose viewpoint the film shares—the small, entirely white town is equally weighted between physical beauty and racism.
When a tornado approaches one night, the family’s cinderblock-propped home is imperiled, while the stress of the business venture creates palpable tension in Jacob and Monica’s marriage. (“Don’t fight,” reads the paper airplanes the children sail towards the arguing parents one night.) Alan’s congenital heart condition and the distance between the farm and nearest hospital cause further worry. Enter Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung), Monica’s tart-tongued mother, who arrives from South Korea with bags of food from home, sharing David’s room and bringing a presence both stern and, with her scabrous humor, unexpectedly hilarious.
Filled with moments of tender reflection and heightened melodrama and lyricism as well as the clear-eyed observations of a young boy about the family dynamics surrounding him, Minari is masterful and transporting, informed (but not creatively confined) by Chung’s own memories. The writer/director’s first film was 2007’s Rwanda-shot Munyurangabo, for which he was nominated for the FIND’s Someone to Watch Spirit Award the following year. But after two other features, Chung found himself typed, he recently told the Hollywood Reporter’s Mia Galuppo, as “an arthouse guy,” making films few outside festivals saw. Sure a sustainable living as a director was out of reach, he moved to South Korea to teach film. Back in the U.S., however, Yeun learned from his new agent, CAA’s Christina Chou, that she also represented Chung—coincidentally, a cousin Yeun remembered meeting at a wedding, whose first film he had seen and liked. He read the Minari script, sent it to Plan B producer Christina Oh—with whom he had worked on Bong Joon-ho’s Okja—and soon, with A24 on board, the film was a go. Minari shot in summer 2019, with Oklahoma doubling for Arkansas, and premiered to strong reviews at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.
To interview Chung, we asked director, screenwriter and cinematographer Aaron Stewart-Ahn, whose screenwriting credits include Mandy and who is currently working on an official Thor story for Marvel Comics while also directing a documentary on police brutality. Their conversation was full of laughter, and Stewart-Ahn notes that the humble and modest Chung thought his own childhood in Arkansas lacked interesting tales—yet the barn-burning scene is based on a real fire that devastated his family’s farm. Minari is currently out from A24.—Scott Macaulay
Filmmaker: This is your fourth feature film. Your earlier films relied a lot on improvisation and found moments and spaces. Minari seems to be a shift for you?
Chung: Yeah, I was more interested in the beginning in something more along the lines of Terrence Malick, Wong Kar-wai or Hou Hsiao-hsien, where the script is not as fleshed out, but you go through the production to try to find the moments. I still love those films, but I just realized that’s not what I enjoy [making]. I started to watch more, like, Billy Wilder movies—things that are impeccably written—and thought, “I’d love to figure out how to do that, and maybe I’ll have a lot less stress on set as well.” It took me a few years to try to learn how to write and to write a script I felt would be ready.
Filmmaker: So, it was a really conscious decision on your part. In previous films, you were even inspired sometimes by poetry. What was the very first thing you started with? An image? A memory? Poetry?
Chung: I didn’t want to be as experimental and art house with this film. [In] previous works, I was interested in letting my intentions be part of the viewing process for an audience, [so] that they would be wondering, “What’s the intention of this?” With this one, I wanted to disappear. I didn’t want people to think, “What is the filmmaker trying to say?” The first thing was always the people.
Honestly, the first person I thought about was Paul [a Pentecostal farmhand played by Will Patton] because he’s based on someone I know in real life. I started to think about that gentleman, then [I thought] about him in relation to my family. As I started to do this whole exercise of writing down a bunch of memories to figure out what I’d be working on next, it all came together: I can do a story with my family, and also this story with Paul, and bring them together in this same space. So, it started with them. And that’s kind of what I feel about this film—it’s meant to be about people. Hopefully, [audiences] take away a sense of the people in the film and not me or not the way I directed it or anything like that.
Filmmaker: Yeah, the film has such a delicate point of view. There are so many contradictions to that.
Chung: I’m a contradictory guy, so…
Filmmaker: Yeah, but that’s what makes for interesting films. The directing isn’t obtrusive or calling attention to itself. And yet, I recognize the specificity of the screenwriting, the structuring. How much of that came out of the editing, but I’m guessing you only had like 21, 23 days to shoot this movie?
Chung: It was a 25-day shoot.
Filmmaker: Wow, 25?
Chung: Yeah, you were close.
Filmmaker: There is a cut suddenly, a reprise of the smoke stack where the male chickens are extinguished, that leads into a discussion about masculinity between the father and son. I feel like there’s such a specific intent to everything, a very deliberate choice. Was that in the script as you were writing it?
Chung: Yeah, those details are built into the script, little things like the videotapes you see that are mail ordered. But I tried to keep it sparse, as well. I wanted Yong Ok [Lee], our production designer, to really bring a lot of her own creative work into the whole thing, and she did. She understood from the start that this is a very detail-oriented film but that we don’t want to draw attention to that in a formal sense, if that makes sense.
Filmmaker: Absolutely. Because really, the question I’m going toward is, do you mind me asking what percentage of this film is really autobiographical? How close is it to you?
Chung: It’s so hard to answer that question because most of the events are based on things that really happened, but there’s so much fiction written into it. For instance, my family and I never slept on a floor together. But even though that never happened, there’s something so true about it because my dad would always joke and ask if we could sleep on the floor together, like we do in Korea. That was always a running joke in our family and something that I still to this day think about: for him, that mattered, and for us, it became a joke. The older we got, the more it became a joke for us and maybe the more nostalgic and sad it got for my dad. So, I wrote it into the film, that this family does that together—that’s completely fiction, but to me, it’s 100 percent true. So, there’s a difference between something having happened or something being true.
Filmmaker: Yeah, you found the cinematic way to distill that memory. But were you, as a very experienced filmmaker, shitting your pants a little at approaching autobiography? I feel like it’s the most daunting form of filmmaking. It exposes you emotionally so much.
Chung: Oh, for sure. As you get older, you accept the reality that what we’re making are just movies, not life. You worry that you will start to mistake movies as being more important than life. And I wondered if that was happening with this one sometimes because I would think, “I’m revealing things about family. I’m putting my dad and mom out there, things that we’d gone through. I could potentially hurt relationships.” And I’m doing this for the sake of a movie, you know? That gets really difficult and scary. So, there was a lot of that that I was working through. And that helped me to also try to seek distance between the script and what actually happened in this family, and to try to make them fully fictional as well. So, I didn’t feel a sense of, “I need to adhere to the authentic actual events of what happened,” but I started to think more of what is honest on a spiritual level to me in this story that I want to express, recall and create? That became the guiding principle and not trying to be a good historian in any sense.
Filmmaker: Bong Joon-ho said this, so I can quote him, but the film is wonderfully not nostalgic—even though the videotapes evoke such a specific sense memory for me—the way they look and feel, and my mom bringing home a plastic bag of them. And yet, formally, you don’t fall into the traps of nostalgia, sentimentality. There’s always that contradiction of emotional complexity. Was that subconsciously happening while you were making it, or was it a strategy going in as a filmmaker?
Chung: I hate talking about my life and letting it be a sob story, getting self-indulgent about it. And I want people to be entertained as well. So, you know, maybe I threw in more penis jokes than there needed to be. But I didn’t want to take myself too seriously with it because I knew that if I did, I myself would be turned off to it, and audiences would probably be turned off to it. So, there wasn’t a set strategy. There was a lot of fear pushing against me to not be too precious about it. And I still feel like I made mistakes at certain points, and there are certain scenes that I wish I had taken a little bit more distance.
Filmmaker: The film’s out there now, and it’s become something else that you don’t have control over. The central paradox that’s fascinating to me is this metaphor of [the plant] minari. There is this idea in the movie that this thing that is not given excessive effort, heartbreak and this intense obsessiveness ends up flourishing by accident. Did you find that was happening to you as you were making the film? Is that a state that exists outside of the text of the work?
Chung: I guess I felt like that sort of thing was happening in my life, in the way that I feel blessed in life. And yet on the other side, I felt like I was working very hard and laboring at something—making films—that was not yielding much fruit. So, I did feel there were two aspects of life I was wrestling with—this side that was so beautiful and wonderful and more of what I felt I needed to invest my life into, then this other side full of heartbreak and difficulty and striving.
Minari, as it started, was symbolizing a lot of what I felt about my grandmother, what I learned from her and the feeling I had about her. Later, you know, I started to see a lot of those connections—to immigration itself, and to the stories of the people who came over and planted themselves in the worst soils and started to thrive and grow. But underlying all of that, it’s less the immigration but the heart and sentiments, the relationships of the people doing that. If that makes sense.
Filmmaker: This is how hard the film hit me, and it’s a bit hard to talk to my friends about my reaction to it because it opens me up to having to deal with my memories. Anyway, I do want to talk about pee jokes. Because—this isn’t talked about a lot—this is an extremely funny movie. I watched it twice now, the second time with my wife. She’s Colombian, and she was dying laughing at certain parts.
Chung: I’m so glad. No one talks about the funniness of it.
Filmmaker: Did that come from memories, or as you were writing the script, did you want to have some jokes, or is it just your sensibility that wasn’t present before? It’s so effortless, but it’s humor that comes out of such weird life things I feel are very rarely represented in movies.
Chung: I think I’ve always wanted to make comedies. I always loved comedies the most of any type of film. When I started making movies, I fell more into the mode of telling serious stories and art house films, things like that. But with this one, I thought, “I really don’t know if I’m going to make another film again. This is really the one that I’m trying to do my most personal thing.” And it’s something that I might be leaving behind for my daughter because I wasn’t satisfied with thinking about my daughter seeing the films that I had made, that they would represent me. This sounds so egocentric, egotistical.
Filmmaker: I don’t think it is. Did you read the book John Powers wrote about Wong Kar-wai?
Chung: I don’t think I’ve read that one, no.
Filmmaker: If you love Wong Kar-wai, you gotta get it, because it’s the first time he drops the façade and the enigma and the mystery. Because he’s trying to explain to his son where the hell he was for 30 years. His son was close to graduating college, and [Wong] is like, I decided to finally do a book where I just reveal everything, so he can read it and know this is what I was doing all these years.
Chung: Oh, that’s cool.
Filmmaker: Any friend of mine who’s having a baby or a child of their own, knows there is a lot of pee and poop humor.
Filmmaker: What’s the Ozu movie that has a lot of fart jokes?
Chung:Good Morning has a running fart joke in it, yeah.
Filmmaker: So, here’s to more poop and pee jokes in art movies.
Chung: I think it’s good because it removes that serious veneer, you know? I think that’s what we need to have more of in life.
Filmmaker: I feel you threaded an extremely delicate needle about memory, and I don’t think it’s egocentric. But I have to ask, as a fellow Korean American who is only now starting to get the chance to make the things I want to make, did you ever feel you were ever going to make films like Minari when you were young? Did you ever think, “I’m going to tell Korean American stories?”
Chung: Oh no, not at all. Young as in what age?
Filmmaker: Twenties. It’s funny, we’re 21st century filmmakers, and I know this is a delicate question, but I’ve got to ask because I think a lot of us struggle with it. Personally, for years in a weird way, I realize now I was almost self-censoring my memories or my identity, [stopping from] putting it into my work because I felt it wasn’t American enough. But the other great contradiction to me about your film is what an incredibly American story this is. Were you conscious of other stories about pioneers and farmers from the pantheon of American cinema? Or were you completely disregarding it and going off on your own?
Chung: I always felt when I was younger that I won’t make films about myself or won’t make films about Korean Americans. I don’t know why. I was more interested in going to Rwanda and making a movie. I shot a documentary in China. I kind of had a feeling that my story was not that interesting, as well. So, I was wrestling with that a lot.
Filmmaker: I feel like there’s a lot of invisible pressure industrially when you are a marginalized filmmaker that your stories aren’t American. But I found your film to be extraordinarily American. I mean, it is about someone who wants to turn a piece of land into a bountiful harvest and provide a better life for their family, and they’re in the heartland. You’ve got the church represented as naturalistically as possible. I’m curious if you were thinking on any sociopolitical level about America and where this fit in with that?
Chung: It’s so strange. For me, it might not have been about whether or not my story was American or not that was keeping me from visiting my own story. I always just felt like I need to be working to tell stories about marginalized people. I was a big fan of world cinema, so I felt very fulfilled making films in Rwanda, producing some films by young filmmakers over there. And then, feeling like, well, my existence in Arkansas was rather boring and not much happened. I started to think more about those things that you just mentioned in 2016, 2017. It was during the time of the election as well. There were so many articles, and friends who were writing things about rural people in America that were just pissing me off [laughs] because I felt like what people were doing was just finding another group to show “tolerance” toward. I felt it was somehow patronizing or something. It was very strange. As someone who grew up there, who has friends there, I felt like I had an insider view of that area. To hear people throw around what Southerners are like, or what Middle America people are like or Christians are like—that didn’t sit well with me.
I started to write an essay and was thinking about my dad a lot during that time. Why was it that he chose to move to Arkansas? Why did he choose to start a farm? And it dawned on me that he had been motivated to do that because he had watched Hollywood movies in Korea—he had seen East of Eden and Giant and Ben-Hur. I don’t know why Ben-Hur would cause him to move to the U.S. [laughter], but he just felt like there was something about America. So, those factored into the idea of this film to a great extent—the myth that draws people. I watched a lot of these old Westerns as I was preparing this film. I revisited Giant, The Big Country. It wasn’t even that I was trying to capture the ideology of these films because that’s not what it was. What I wanted to go to was specifically what it is that is driving people in these places, and what is it about that that is so human? In doing that, I also wanted to understand my father. Why did he make these decisions? And not to frame it in some political way, or to further some kind of ideology, but instead really just to go down to, what were their dreams? What were their hopes? How did failure feel? How did it feel to have fear that you’re not going to provide for your family? Going down to the elemental things was driving me. And I think that is deeply American, but I also think it’s deeply human. Maybe that’s the level that I was always hoping to do, and that Steven and I, we would talk about constantly as well, that we’re not trying to do a film about identity. We’re not trying to do a film that’s trying to talk about what’s going on in America right now with [former president] Trump and the Left and the Right. We’re really just trying to hone in on these people as human beings. That’s what was driving this all the time.
Filmmaker: Exactly what you said at the start here. You started with people—you were trying to get into the complexity of people. I think what’s extraordinary about the film is that these are your specific memories, but they are resonating with people who don’t have this background. I feel a particular connection [with my own Korean American memories], but friends of mine who have seen it who don’t have this experience, they can relate so much to the obsessiveness of a father figure who pursues his obsession, maybe to the detriment of his children, and yet still with love, and how complicated that is.
Chung: That’s awesome. And that’s what’s always been so rewarding, when people from different walks of life kind of come and say they connected to it.
Filmmaker: I’m with you totally, too, about misrepresentation. I often feel that because I grew up in what you could ostensibly call Red State America, a farming town by a military base. We also had an internment camp for the Japanese in the 1940s.
Chung: Oh geez. Yeah.
Filmmaker: But at the same time, I feel like the way cinema often presents rural or suburban America can be such a loaded trap or a caricature. What is often portrayed as “middle-class Americans” is so foreign to me from my own experiences. Like, the houses are too big. Even the meals are too much.
Chung: I’m with you on that.
Filmmaker: So, you were a filmmaker working with these very naturalistic elements in your previous films. You were very reactive to the environments. This was more formal and controlled. But there are a lot of beautiful, I’m guessing, mistakes in this. Watching the way the fire is shot, the location of the creek, the really obvious one would be the fly that lands on Halmoni’s face. There still must have been a lot of strange, happy accidents even though you were working in a more controlled way. Have you reconciled these two methods of filmmaking? Or did you find that one fed into the other?
Chung: Even though the script is quite controlled and set up for a film that could be told in a more controlled manner, I’m still interested in that feeling that any film is always capturing something that’s in the present moment, and that’s new. I knew that we needed to create a freedom on set for the actors to bring something in the present moment that I could not have planned, and Alan is a huge example of that. A seven-year-old actor, there’s no way to predict what he’s going to do and how he’s going to behave, so we always tried to set up for his shots some element of surprise that we could capture, something super authentic and real happening in the moment that wasn’t planned. That meant that we wouldn’t give him a complete clue of what’s going to happen.
For instance, when Youn Yuh-jung offers the chestnut from her hand to him, that was an honest reaction of his. I just told him, “Whatever she gives you, take it and eat it.” But I didn’t tell him she’s going to chew on it, then offer it to him. So, that face that we see is him honestly knowing that he should probably eat it, but he’s not going to. That, to me, is really cinema, capturing those surprises and elements. We still wanted to do that sort of thing. I think in the past, I thought I could tell a whole story that way. With this one, I realized that you can create the context for these surprises to happen, while at the same time being responsible to your 25-day shoot without any overtime because we don’t have money.
Filmmaker: This is a dumb question, but how the hell did you pull off shooting this in 25 days? I heard you shot the creek sequences in one single day.
Chung: Yeah. And we only had Alan six hours a day on set.
Filmmaker: Oh yeah, child labor laws.
Chung: And he’s in almost every scene. We had no margin for error, and that was the hardest thing about this film. We were blessed with a lot of external things that went our way—the weather was always good for us, the fire in that scene [went] well. But I can’t say enough about the human beings on this set. It was Lachlan Milne, our DP, and [production designer] Yong Ok Lee—incredible, incredible people working at their highest form without making any mistakes, often doing things by intuition. Our two ACs, they’re a brother and sister who are adopted from Korea, and they decided to work on this film because they heard it’s a Korean American film, and they wanted to learn more about their culture. Jamie Roman’s a producer but took a demotion to be an AC on this film just because she wanted to be near this set. And Jon Roman, our focus puller—I’ve never seen two people work so hard in their lives, just carrying things, running at full speed and setting up the camera for Lachlan and pulling focus pulls that were just miraculous to me. We shot some scenes in 30 seconds. They were at the end of our call sheet, and we’re like, “OK, scene 79, we’ve got to get this. We have 30 seconds.” And we’re all running and getting the camera in place. It’s the people who made it happen. All I can do is thank them. I hope that comes through in the article, just how thankful I am.
Filmmaker: What did you do as a director to make your entire cast feel like such a dynamic, real family unit? They’re so dimensional. There’s resentments but also love at the same time. With your short shooting schedule, how did you get them to cohere together like that?
Chung: That started from our initial rehearsal process. The actresses stayed at this house together, and that ended up becoming our community hub where we would go and share meals. That was really important, for them to bond, to talk about life and start to have those dynamics interpersonally. Then, on set, I felt like everything flowed out very naturally. Yuh-jung (I call her YJ), Yeri and Steven created an atmosphere for the kids to fall into their roles very naturally. And YJ, Yeri and Steven are such professionals that they embraced their roles and almost stayed within the characters of their roles—not in a method way, but they stayed in character and spirit and helped maintain that feeling of a family throughout the shoot.
I think Steven had the hardest job because he’s really going between the Korean style of acting and technique, and the American style and these nonprofessionals. He was the glue of working within every style and adapting and bringing the best out of people. But then YJ and Yeri, to me, were just geniuses. Like every take, I don’t think I needed more than one or two takes, and they were just on top of it. We couldn’t have done this so quickly without them, either.
Filmmaker: We started this talk about how this film came to you as trying to depict people. I find the characters Paul and Halmoni [grandmother in Korean] so fascinating and unseen in movies. Halmoni is such a unique character, I feel, in both American and Korean cinema. How did you come up with her and how much of that was a collaboration with the actress?
Chung: There was a lot of collaboration there. YJ has the best sense of humor, so she offered a lot of ideas with visual jokes that we could do. For instance, the chestnut thing was her idea, and the way she did it was so perfect and funny. With Will as well, he was so excited with this role because he gravitates to characters who are on the outside of society and kind of misunderstood. I’ve always felt a deep heart for people like Halmoni and Paul, who everybody might judge as strange or a fool or uneducated or not serious, but who hold a lot of wisdom and actually have the secret to what it means to live a good life.