In 2018, Lee Isaac Chung all but gave up his career in filmmaking.
Isaac had directed several critically acclaimed shorts and features, including Munyurangabo, part of the Cannes Official Selection in 2007. But after just turning 40, Isaac thought...“It really hasn’t worked out for me career-wise to make a living doing this, so maybe I should pivot.”
He and his family moved to South Korea, where he would begin teaching documentary, screenwriting and film history at a university in the fall of that year.
But he had one story left to tell—and just a few months to write it.
“I needed to do something that I would regret if I didn’t do,” Isaac says. “If I had stopped working and I hadn’t done this project, I would regret it for the rest of my life.” That project became Minari, Isaac’s new film that tells the story of his immigrant parents and his family’s move to a farm in Arkansas when he was a kid.
Growing up in a predominantly white community in America’s heartland, Isaac was constantly trying to figure out and form his identity. “I feared different people saying what my identity was to me: My parents telling me, ‘You’re Korean. Don’t forget you’re Korean,’ and then kids at school saying, ‘Well, you’re American now.’”
“I loved growing up in Arkansas. At the same time, I felt like I was an outsider quite often. You end up feeling that way in your own family, too. When we’d go to Korea, I wouldn’t feel completely Korean. Maybe that’s the identity that I feel I have. I’m on the outside.”
Movies provided a model to Isaac and his sister for what it was to be American—the games that suburban kids played, the meals they ate, what their homes looked like.
He loved “anything Spielberg.” He found that those films “had families that were always on the brink of collapse, and that resonated with me a lot as a kid because I always felt like we were on the brink of collapse. Back then, when I thought about movies, I would always think, ‘Steven Spielberg. That’s a real movie.’”
Isaac went on to study ecology and evolutionary biology in college, before turning to filmmaking in his senior year. “I took this ‘Video as Art’ course to fulfill an arts requirement, and that’s what did me in. That’s what made me fall in love with filmmaking,” he says. He started watching more art house cinema, trying to get ideas for how to express himself through the medium. “Asian filmmakers, like Wong Kar-wai and Hou Hsiao-hsien, actually resonated with me quite a lot.” He went on to do an MFA at the University of Utah, much to his parents’ dismay.
“They were mortified,” Isaac says. “We were on vacation in Orlando the Christmas of my senior year when I told them that I wasn’t going to med school. That I was going to try to go to film school instead.”
His mother blamed his father for watching too many movies while the kids were growing up. (His dad credits The Big Country and Giant for inspiring him to move to America.) “They were all trying to figure out where they went wrong,” Isaac recalls.
By the time Isaac set off to film Minari, in 2019, he was the same age his dad was when they moved to Arkansas—a profound realization that was not lost on him.
“I felt like the time was just right for me to dig into, ‘What did it feel like for my dad?’” At the same time, he was mulling the perspective of his daughter, just as she was processing the family’s recent move to Korea, and his wife, whose patience had allowed Isaac to pursue this crazy dream in the first place. All of these reflections came together as a mix of past and present, memories of his own childhood and discoveries of how others survived their struggles.
“It’s this weird dichotomy of two things happening at once: the present day and the memory coming together.”
Through the process of writing, casting and filming his family’s American story, he was able to understand his parents in a new way. “I started to see them more as human beings than as their roles, or as immigrants. Just how human they were in the things that they dreamed for and wanted, the things that disappointed them, that caused tension for them. And I felt like I shared a lot of those same feelings myself.”
As the film was coming together, Isaac’s parents weren’t aware their story was its heartbeat. They didn’t know the full truth until the movie was made. This was intentional.
“I thought, ‘They might kill me for doing this, but I’ve got to make it. I’ve got to let this story live on,’” Isaac says. “And I wanted my daughter to have it. I wanted her to have something that she could see to understand what I was so busy trying to work on all those years. I wanted her to have something that would mean something to her as well. It’s her story, too.”
As he was writing the script, unsure whether the movie would even get made, Isaac would casually ask his mother for details about her experience, about his grandmother, about the timing of things. “I just snuck those into the daily course of our conversations. I didn’t really formally say, ‘I’m trying to write something about us.’”
Over time, his parents learned that he was making a film set in Arkansas. About a family consisting of a mother, father, grandmother and two kids. Living in a mobile home. Connecting the dots, they worried this would become “some kind of exposé where I was going to complain about what they had put me through as a kid,” Isaac says.
He showed them the final cut the Saturday after Thanksgiving, just a few months after shooting had wrapped. His parents had flown in from Colorado to spend the holiday with him, and Isaac made sure to get every detail right: the wine, the snacks, the room setup. He spent the screening pacing through his wife’s aunt and uncle’s living room, as he doesn’t have a TV in his own home. (“A quirky thing for a filmmaker, I guess.”)
“They started to get very emotional as they were watching, and that feeling didn’t stop. It just kept escalating. By the end, we all embraced. We talked that night about how we’d survived, how we’d really come through as a family, despite what it was like back then.”
In some ways, the film, and that fateful screening, changed his relationship with his parents. “We don’t have a very clear line of communication because my Korean isn’t as good as it should be,” Isaac says. A lot of the conversations are elementary, often with his mom asking if he’s eating properly and sleeping enough. But now, “the conversations have taken on more about existence and memory and our family story. They’re willing to go a little deeper and to share things. Maybe they didn’t realize I was capable of thinking about them in this way.”
Basing a story in reality—in Isaac’s own reality—made it all the more important to cast the right actors in these roles. Steven Yeun, who plays Jacob, the father, came on first. As it happens, Steven and Isaac are cousins by marriage, but this would be their first collaboration.
“I wasn’t sure if any Korean-American actor would want to do this role because they’d have to speak with an accent, and there’s something very loaded about that for Asian-American actors—which is understandable,” Isaac says.
In talking to Steven, and realizing just how right he was for this part, Isaac went back and rewrote the script with the actor in mind. The two discussed James Dean and Giant and other elements that would bring Jacob the authenticity he needed.
Then came Youn Yuh-jung, who plays the grandmother, and Yeri Han, who plays Monica, Jacob’s wife, both through a producer friend of Isaac’s. Once they were cast and Isaac returned to the U.S., the search for the two children, David and Anne, began. The process took just six weeks. “Alan [Kim] and Noel [Cho] had never acted before in a film,” Isaac says, “but you could tell when you see their initial auditions that there’s something incredibly special about both of them.”
A 25-day shoot in the blistering Oklahoma summer heat—and a Sundance deadline looming—left little room for error.
“We were working on intuition, and I felt that I couldn’t allow myself to get lost in my emotions and to start dreaming about the past,” Isaac says. But the past would creep in, sometimes in the most surprising moments. “The first time I walked through that set that Yong Ok Lee so brilliantly designed, that mobile home, I thought I was going to see the farm when I walked out the back door. I opened the door, and there was a crew. That’s when I realized how magical that was to just create the space.”
There was also the scene where Grandma is comforting David when he’s afraid to sleep at night. “That’s something that had never really happened in my life, but as she was saying those lines, suddenly it just felt like it was my grandmother telling me those things. And I just lost it. I couldn’t stop crying while we were filming.”
“I just felt like I cared so much about the movie, that everything was so personal. Not letting myself feel emotional was part of that struggle of trying to get it made. But obviously you can’t control it sometimes, and things would rush in.”
So whatever happened to the Arkansas farm of Isaac’s childhood? “That was a tough business,” he says. “We let the pear trees run wild and just produced pears, but we stopped doing the actual vegetable farming. It was never going to yield a profit.”
“One thing that we noted, though, was that the minari patch my grandmother planted was really the thing that grew.” Minari, a Korean watercress, grows fast and wild in the sun or in the shade, so long as its roots are kept damp.
“That was one of the key memories that made me think, ‘I’m going to make this film called Minari and let my grandmother be a big part of the story,’” he says. “It was really thinking about what she planted and what that symbolizes, spiritually.”
At Sundance, the film took home the Dramatic Grand Jury Prize and the Dramatic Audience Award, and needless to say, Isaac has settled back in the States and into the director’s chair. He’s preparing to take on his next project, a live-action remake of the Japanese animated film Your Name, and his teaching days are behind him—for now. “It’s another miracle to me that this has all happened, and I can’t quite explain the way life is unfolding these days. And for it to all be happening in 2020,” he says.
Reflecting on the year that’s been, Isaac is struck by how moments in Minari now take on a whole new resonance.
“I had to go in and do a check screening of our HD master, and there was something about seeing that shot of the family sleeping on the floor together that hit me so hard watching it this time,” he says. “Just feeling like that was my family now, and how we’re coming through something, and somehow we’re still together—and that’s really the important thing.”
Minari hits theaters Friday, February 12, 2021.
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