Lee Isaac Chung’s fourth directorial feature Minari is, among many things, a deeply American story. It centers on a Korean immigrant family trying and struggling to find a way to assimilate within themselves while chasing their version of the American dream. It’s both beautiful and heart-rending; poignant and soul-nourishing. Chung not only accomplishes telling a personal story based on his own childhood experience, but also a universal one.
Steven Yeun stars as Jacob Yi, the patriarch of the immigrant family. Feeling pressured to make something of himself, he decides to relocate his family — wife Monica (Han Ye-ri), son David (Alan Kim), and daughter Anne (Noel Kate Cho) — from California to rural Arkansas to build a farm. But his American dream is not exactly one he shares with his wife. Where he thinks that starting anew is a risk worth taking, Monica, on the other hand, worries that his over-optimism will hurt their family. For most of its runtime, Minari observes how these two different mindsets between Jacob and Monica contribute to creating a distance between them, putting their marriage in an even more fractured place. And it’s at these moments where the movie is at its most heartbreaking. But Minari is not entirely a portrait of a dissolution of a marriage. Rather, it’s quite the opposite. At its core, in fact, the movie celebrates love and moments of small joy, showing us how even after a tragedy, a family and human beings can always bounce back.
We recently sat down with director and writer Chung to talk about his 2020 Sundance Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award winner and seeing and connecting to a family simply as human beings.
Reyzando Nawara: First of all, congratulations on the movie! The story of Minari is clearly drawn from your own personal experience, why did you wanna tell it at this stage of your life and career?
Lee Isaac Chung: It’s always been on my mind to do this film at some point in my career. And a lot of things, it has to do with timing; just feeling that the time is right to do this sort of thing. One thing for me was that I was turning the age that my dad was when we moved to Arkansas, and my daughter is now the age that I was at the same time. So I kinda felt like I was understanding this perspective a little more. I remember I read an interview with Edward Yang where he talked about how he needed to be ready to make Yi Yi; he needed to reach a certain age where he could understand the characters. And I kinda felt like I needed to do that too. And then the second thing is I wasn’t sure if I was able to make another film after this one. I was transitioning into teaching and trying to have a more stable life for my family. So I knew that if I don’t do this, I’m going to regret it. And I’m going to regret it because it means so much to me cause it’s so personal. So that’s why I thought now is the time and that I shouldn’t wait any longer. That’s why I did it.
The title Minari refers to a Korean vegetable, what does it represent in the movie? Is there any metaphorical meaning behind it?
I would say that there are lots of metaphorical meanings for it. But I don’t know how to put it into words, and that’s why the film is Minari; that’s why the film is about this thing. To me, however, it really symbolizes a lot about my grandmother and a feeling I have about her. And the fact that my grandmother actually did bring minari from Korea to the US. I don’t know what exactly it is, but it’s a feeling. To me, I like the idea of poetry or works of art that try to contain an inexpressible idea in something and that’s where the idea of using Minari so much came in.
There are two perspectives in the movie, David and Jacob. Why did you decide to tell the story that way?
In a way, I felt like Minari is a story about coming-of-age for two men. One is a boy, one is a man. So that’s why the film ends with these two. And you kinda see two different love stories in the movie: the boy and her grandmother, and also between a husband and his wife. This was mostly a personal choice for me. I wanted to grow as a person and I also wanted to remember back to my childhood and think about my father and think about the way in which he was learning to be human. So it was all really a personal choice that was due to me wanting to explore these themes and ideas.
Was there a particular challenge in telling the story from the father’s perspective, considering that when you were experiencing it in real life, you were still a kid?
It was a challenge in that I didn’t want to let the film become a message for me and my parents, so that’s what I was mostly worried about. I kept going back to exactly what you’re saying, I kept wanting to understand and to find who they are as human beings and not just speak to them and say “oh, I love you” or “thank you” or anything like that, but to really just to see them. And that’s something that drove me a lot in the writing process. I just want to see them. What I found was that the more that I saw in them the things that I see in myself and the things that I see as a human being in myself, the more that I felt I could see them. So it’s weird, it’s like, in a way, connecting with my parents as a human being and leaving aside the relationship for a moment. And the film became about that in a lot of ways. You let the film be a platform to connect with someone as a human being and just forget about the relationships; just connect as a human being for a moment. It was definitely an interesting process.
One thing that strikes me the most about Minari is how even though it’s about a Korean immigrants family living in a conservative town, it never falls into a racially-charged drama. The story is not so much about assimilation to a particular culture, but assimilation within a family. Was this something that came naturally in the writing or was this the intention that you wanted to achieve from the get-go?
That’s a great question. It was my intention when I first started writing it. On some level, I knew that if I don’t address these feelings of what it’s like to be an outsider in a community then that would feel false. So I needed to show this cultural clash, but I wanted to do it in my way and not let that become the focus of the movie. And for me, that meant how do these people continue to see each other as human beings and that drove me a lot in a way that I wanted to portray their experiences with racism. That’s honestly the way that I experienced growing up. It was more like that. People are being kind but slightly ignorant, but ultimately they mean well and we eventually become friends. And that’s what I appreciated about growing up and that’s what I wanted to show in the movie.
The movie is filled with moments of heartbreak and regret on the one hand. But on the other hand, there are also moments of beauty and human resilience. How do you navigate these two different tones?
I kept on telling myself to make a movie that I would want to watch. And then also make a movie that I would enjoy making. I knew if I just let myself focus on the bad stuff, the suffering, it’s not gonna be an emotional place you wanna be in for two years in your life. And instead, you want to just put in your holistic view of life. For me, there was a lot of bad stuff and we all know that; we’re all adults. But there is a lot of fun stuff too, and stupid stuff, and stuff we can laugh about. And I thought a lot about keeping that in the movie, making sure that it’s funny and that it’s human.
Were they any scenes that didn’t make it in the final edit but you wish were included in the movie?
I think I’m going to have three deleted scenes on the DVD as we release them. These were scenes I really like. One was with Paul (Will Patton) explaining a little bit more about his backstory. And then another is we have a fun moment with Johnnie (Jacob Wade) and David riding bicycles outside, which was one of my favorite scenes in the movie. And then another scene is Jacob describing chicken sexing to his kids. But I thought that including them would be a little distracting from the flow of the film. What we found was that it was taking away the focus on this family story, that’s why we have to take those scenes out. But all the actors did an incredible job, and they’re fun scenes so we’re definitely going to release them.
Oh, I cant wait to see that! Speaking of the actors, the ensemble in this movie are all excellent. From Steven Yeun to Han Ye-ri to Youn Yuh-jung and the kid actors too, they’re all doing a wonderful job. Can you share a bit about the process of assembling this group of talented actors? What’s about them that you think will capture the story you wanted to tell?
I wanted to assemble a family that you fall in love with. And some things I felt with each of those actors is that each of them is so strong inside. Like who they are, they’re very strong. And they know who they are. They have a very good sense of self. And to me, if I’m around people who have a very strong sense of self like that, I find that to be so infectious and charismatic, and I just want to be with them and talk to them. So that was intentional. I wanted each member of the Yi family to feel like they as individuals are very strong people. And Steven Yeun and Han Ye-ri and Youn Yuh-jung, they all embody that to me. And even down to the kids, Alan Kim and Noel Kate Cho, they all have that feeling to me. Somehow these individuals are very strong, but they feel believable when they’re together as a family. And you wanted that to work. That’s what I hope for.
Now that the movie is about to be released widely, what do you hope people will take away from the Yi family?
I’m open to whatever people take away. And as you might probably guess from anyone who makes films like this, you just hope that people will enjoy it. What I’ve enjoyed the most is hearing people tell me that they want to say hi to their parents or they remember back to their grandmothers and appreciate their family even more after watching the movie. If the film allows people to feel closer to their community or to people around them, then I would consider that to be a deep honor that the film is working in that way. But otherwise, I just hope people have a good time.
I experienced the same thing as you and as what happened in the movie when I was a kid. My dad relocated me and my whole family to a smaller town to build a farm, and watching Minari made me cherish that memory more now that I’m an adult.
Oh, that’s so good. So you were David in a way? [laughing] Was there your grandparents too?
Yeah, correct, in a way. But no, no grandparents, just my mom and dad.
But you feel it right? You go to a place like that and it brings out the family and how important that becomes. Thanks for sharing that. That’s beautiful.
Thank you for creating the movie. Anyway, I always ask this in all of my interviews, it’s not really related to the filmmaking process, but it’s a fun question. If you could program a double feature to watch with Minari, what movies from the last three years would you pick?
Wow, well, yeah, I would say Parasite. [laughing] Just cause I’m a fan of director Bong and that film. I love that film, I think it’s a perfect movie. They’re both films where the family is the main character and in some way, they’re both family stories. They’re very different, but I think at the same time they kinda feel the same. If anyone wants to watch two Korean subtitled family films, then let’s go for it, Parasite and Minari.
Minari will be released by A24 in select theaters February 12 and then available on demand February 26.
Photo credit: Joe Rushmore/A24