• Golden Globe Awards

Minari (USA): In Conversation with Lee Isaac Chung

Lee Isaac Chung was the big winner at the 2020 Sundance Festival, where his film Minari took the Audience Award in the Dramatic Competition and also the Grand Jury Prize. And Lee Isaac Chung is in the news now more than ever. Not only because of the accolades that his film is getting, but also for his upcoming projects. Next for Paramount and producer J.J. Abrams, he will direct the live action adaptation of Your Name, one of the most popular Japanese Anime titles in recent years.
Born in Denver to Korean parents, Chung started his career in Rwanda where he directed the experimental Munyurangabo in the local Kinyarwanda language, which ended up premiering in Cannes to great acclaim. After two fiction films and one documentary in English he decided to tackle a very autobiographical film. Minari tells the story of a Korean man (Steven Yeung), who moves to a farm in Arkansas with his wife and two children without much agricultural knowledge to grow Korean vegetables for the local immigrant community.
What did you learn about your own childhood making this movie?
I learned so much.  I think first and foremost I learned to see my family members not only as fathers and mothers and sisters, but also as human beings.  I felt that process really helped our entire family relationship as we were able to understand each other better.
How emotional was it for you to recreate your own history?
I tried to keep a distance to the idea of recreating exactly.  So I wanted to make it feel for myself that this is not my family, that this is another family, a new family.  So I changed the names and everything and a lot of the details are not the same as what happened in my family.  But at the same time, the emotions would creep in at different times when I was filming, I would vaguely remember things that I had been through with my family.  So yeah, there were times on set that I felt more emotional than I would have liked and that was not always a good thing for directing. And other times where I just felt like I was learning a lot as well about my own life and life in general. 
But the structure of the family is the same as your own family at that time?
It is yeah.  Something that is different is that my grandmother was already living with us when we moved to Arkansas together.  And so I was changing different things for the sake of the story. 
You have done films in several languages, but this is your first approach to Korean.  Why did you wait so long?
I suppose I never felt ready to do this in the past.  And I wanted to do things in situations that were very different and foreign from my own.  I almost was afraid of doing something very personal.  So there was something about this where I just needed to feel ready to do it. 
What happened to your father’s farm? Was it successful, because we never really learned about it from the film. How long did you stay on your father’s farm?
Well, we still have the farm, but now there’s not much that is growing there.  And my parents moved to Colorado, so they still have to go back every now and then to cut the grass and things like that.  My dad ended up doing herbal medicine and that’s what really helped us to be able to go to college and things like that.  But the farm itself, that was a hard life, it’s not an easy sort of life as you might know.  And yeah, it was a struggle for many farmers during that time.
Why did you pick this moment of your life to do something autobiographical?
Well, my daughter turned the age that I was then in the story because my daughter is now that age, she is 7 years old.  Naturally, I started to see the world through her eyes and I started to remember what it was like to be her age and that made me feel, not just that I am close to that memory but also that I am close to my father, because I am now the age that my father was in that story. 
Do you see any connection between this wild dream that your dad had and your own wild dreams of becoming a film director?
Yeah, you know the saying that “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” I think my mom has said that many times to me when she notices this wild pursuit that I am on to become a filmmaker, she says you are just like your father. (laughs) There’s something similar, but it’s not as difficult, what he did was much more difficult.
What did Steven Yeun bring to the movie besides being the most recognizable name? 
He makes Jacob believable and I feel like he makes Jacob understandable.  So you believe through Steven because of his gift at acting and performing that this kid is really trying to become a farmer.  And you also understand what he is doing and you don’t look at him as an evil man in any way, even though what he is doing is quite risky and he is putting his family at risk, I feel like you still want to cheer for him and you still want him to succeed.  And that’s something that naturally comes to Steven, he brings out people’s love in some way for him.  But also I just feel like what he does is so understated without saying anything, with his body language.  I am reminded of old movies when I watch him in this one, of old Hollywood classics where you see cowboys really trying to make a life for themselves at the West.  And I feel like I see that in Steven because he is a movie star.
Did you film on a farm?  How difficult was it to be filming outside?
Yeah, the location was hot, it was loud.  We had two locations, we had one where there was no farm yet and then we had another where Mong Farmers had started a farm in Oklahoma and that was a real farm, a real family farm, and I noticed that their grandmother was living with them too in a trailer home. (laughs) So it was interesting to film in a place where immigrant farmers are actually farming and to use that one.  I will tell you, their life is much more difficult than our movie life for sure.
How was it to film the fire?  Was that complicated?
It was hard because it was so unpredictable, we didn’t know what we were going to get.  And we needed to do all kinds of things to get the permission to do that and we didn’t have much time or money, so we couldn’t get it wrong. So we took a really big gamble in doing it this way.  And I don’t know what we would have done if it didn’t work, because we didn’t film any safety takes without the barn actually on fire, to try to use digital effects for it, we just went ahead and burned it.  So we did it with no backup plan really.
Why do you think it took so long to talk about the Korean-American experience on film? 
I think that nowadays I have noticed that there are more people watching Korean dramas and dramas from all over the world, through Netflix or through other streaming platforms.  I think people are starting to watch films with subtitles more and more.  And maybe the industry had to see that people will watch movies like this before they were willing to take the gamble.  And I hope people will watch this film in enough numbers so that the next film that comes along, they can say well look at Minari, Minari did okay.  So I can only hope we have that idea.
The beginning of this year was very special for Koreans because you won at Sundance the two biggest awards and Bong Joon-ho won the Golden Globe and the Oscar.  Do you think that is a natural product of a growing industry or do you feel that it’s an independent American film and not really connected to the Korean industry?
I think this is very much in between I think, because we have such household name stars like Youn Yuh-jung and Han Ye-ri, in Korea people will have an interest in this movie because of actors like that.  And Steven Yeun is also very well known there.  But at the same time I do feel like it’s a very American film. I used to teach film history and I even taught it in Korea, and what I would say it that Koreans have been making incredible films for many years now, and it’s good that a lot of notice is, it’s turning towards Korea and I am so glad that it happened with Bong Joon-ho’s film because frankly, I think that’s one of the most perfect films that’s been made in the last few years.
Did you ever think about making this in English instead of Korean?

At one time I did.  I thought I am not going to get financing for this movie unless I keep it in English.  And of course, my dream was we would film it in Korean.  And luckily getting Plan B and A24 on board, they tend to take more gambles and they understand that sometimes these gambles will help define a film and make a film better. So it was great working with them and they encouraged me to go ahead and do this the way I thought it was right. 
How involved was Brad Pitt in the production?
Well, we were working basically within his company, so everything that is being done is really through something that he built.  But day to day he’s not really involved in the production or the decision making, he really entrusts the producers, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Christina Oh, and empowers them.  But yeah, that I know for him, we were filming in the mountains of Oklahoma where he was born, so he was excited to hear that we had a project that was filming there.  (laughs) And he was very supportive.
You started your career as a film director in Rwanda.  How was that experience?  You went there to help your wife, but how did you end up making a movie?
I was teaching a class about film and I felt that the best way we could learn how to do filmmaking was to make a film together.  It’s almost like a feature film that I wasn’t setting out to make, it just kind of happened. And because of that, it felt very pure and we weren’t trying to prove anything, we were just trying to work together and make something honest.  And it was one of the best experiences of my life doing that and working with them.
And then the movie ended up in Cannes, did you expect that?
Of course not.  We were almost joking about it when we were submitting it and it was more of a dare.  (laughs)  And what I submitted to Cannes was so bad that I recorded, because we shot on film, I just recorded this movie screen using this cheap video camera because I didn’t have the money to have a digital transfer.  (laughs) So I just recorded a projection of the film and submitted it and Cannes took it.  After that, we realized oh we have to raise money to try to have a 35mm print and all these different things.  It was above our heads.
How grateful are you to your parents for forcing you to speak Korean in a country that didn’t speak it?’
I am very grateful now and I need to show my gratitude by making my daughter learn it, I feel bad about that. (laughs) But yeah, it’s important.  I definitely could not have made this movie if I didn’t understand Korean to the level that I do.
Did you rebel against that at some point?
No, I never really did. And it was my grandmother who really taught me, because my grandmother watched me and she didn’t speak English.  So if I wanted to communicate with my grandmother, it would have to be in Korean only.  And so she is the one who taught me Korean and she taught me all the Korean swear words I know as well, (laughs) as you see in the movie.  She was the spirit, that generation, that grandmother generation that really made me connect to Korea. 
I know you are going to make a big movie with Brad Pitt again.  Are you ready for that, because it will be a completely different experience than what you did in Minari, with this big budget?
Yeah, it should be.  To be honest, I am just trying to tell a good story, so even going from making very small arthouse films like Munyurangabo to making Minari, that was a jump.  And it’s the same somehow, trying to tell a good story.  And I hope it’s going to be the same going up a budget level. But I am excited for it.