Director Lee Isaac Chung on the “long, hard road” to Minari

The American filmmaker's highly personal family drama is a hit with critics, but don't call him an overnight success

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      The last time I spoke to Lee Isaac Chung about Minari, I made him cry. 

      I didn’t mean to. We were talking about the movie in a Zoom Q&A for TIFF’s Secret Movie Club screening last month, and our conversation turned to how personal the film is for him. And of course it is: Minari is based on his own childhood in Arkansas, as the son of Korean immigrants. 

      It’s about a family finding themselves in a strange new place, trying to fit in while dealing with culture shock and self-doubt. And in alternating between the innocent perspective of little David (Alan S. Kim) and the more adult concerns of his parents Jacob (Steven Yeun) and Monica (Yeri Han), Chung’s movie lets us see them more clearly than they see each other. 

      It’s piercing and powerful and beautiful. He’s bringing his own memories to life. Something about that clearly resonates with audiences as much as it did with me. Named after a Korean vegetable, Minari won both the audience award and the Grand Jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival last year, and it’s spent the last few months collecting kudos on the awards circuit, including a best screenplay prize from the Toronto Film Critics Association and nods for best foreign-language film and best supporting actress for Yuh-jung Youn, who plays Monica’s mother, from the Vancouver Film Critics Circle.

      This weekend, Minari is going to the Golden Globes with a single nomination, for best foreign-language film; it will probably win. Oscars are a very real possibility. And to that end, Chung is making the rounds for his film, hosting virtual screenings with Yeun and doing as much press as possible.

      “We’re just trying to get this film to an audience,” he says. “The Oscar stuff is part of that. I’ve got a lot of good friends who are keeping me grounded, but at the same time reminding me: ‘Hey, be grateful. This is a good moment and don’t fret.’ I didn’t set out to win an Oscar, of course, but to be in this conversation, it’s somehow an honour and a strange life experience as well.

      The other thing about having a festival hit is that you get hailed as an overnight success, which would be funny if Chung hadn’t been making feature films for a decade and a half.

      “That hasn’t been lost on me,” he laughs. “I want people to know that I am not an overnight success, if only to encourage the people who don’t feel that they are being successful. I’ve been there, and it’s a long, hard road…I came to peace with that and I’m still at peace with that, and then to come out the other side with a film like this, it’s all the sweeter.”

      But then Minari would be a very different film had Chung made it in his mid-20s instead of at 40. 

      “Not to say that I’m some wise guy now,” he laughs. “I’m an idiot. But at least with some distance, I felt more like I wanted to honour the memory, I wanted to honour my parents. I felt like I understood a lot of things that my dad went through, for instance, that I didn’t understand as a 20-year-old. I understand the weight of the world that he felt…. I understand the little things that that he’s going through, what makes him tick. I’m grateful that now was the time. I don’t even know how the stars align for that. It’s really, really crazy.”

      Director Lee Isaac Chung (right) on the set of Minari.
      Elevation Pictures

      I ask how he and Yeun made Jacob his own character, rather than some stylized memory of Chung’s father. Chung isn’t entirely sure.

      “On set, there’s so much focus just placed on getting it right and getting it true, and we didn’t have much time to think or to deliberate,” he says. “I just remember, the set work was very intensive and much of it was [done] on instinct and intuition. But the great thing was, working with Steven, we’re on the same page. There’s no discussion; we both know what we’re trying to say. 

      “Even now, when we do our Q&As, I find that I’m saying the things that he’s saying, and he says the things that I say, because our perspectives are so similar; we’ve kind of gone through the same things with our parents. In retrospect now, we’re noticing how magical [making Minari] was, and it continues to be magical, the way it’s finding community among other Asian-Americans who are telling us, ‘Oh, we don’t feel as alone. We see that other people have had these same experiences.’ I think neither of us were expecting that kind of level of response from the Asian-American community. 

      “I’ve been telling my wife: I just feel like I’m a part of something much bigger than myself with this,” he adds. “This is really a dream come true for filmmaking. That’s what you hope for. So, yeah, it’s been wild. I don’t want to be too precious about it either, because it’s just a movie, but there’s something that is constantly surprising us with this process.” 

      Minari is available to stream Friday (February 26).

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