Minari director Lee Isaac Chung finds success by returning to his childhood home

Lee Isaac Chung and his daughter are seen in this still image from the 78th Annual Golden Globe Awards on Feb 28, 2021.
Lee Isaac Chung and his daughter are seen in this still image from the 78th Annual Golden Globe Awards on Feb 28, 2021.PHOTO: REUTERS/NBC

(NYTIMES) - In 2018, about a decade after his first feature, the Rwandan drama Munyurangabo, opened to rave reviews at Cannes, Lee Isaac Chung was this close to ditching the capricious life of an indie filmmaker for the life of a film professor. "I was hitting 40, and I realised I needed to just move on in life and do something practical," he said.

Chung had already taken a position teaching screenwriting at the University of Utah's South Korean campus in Incheon, but he felt he had one last screenplay in him. "I tried to put everything I could into that script," he said.

That supposedly final hurrah became Minari, a coming-of-age story inspired by Chung's experiences growing up the son of Korean American immigrants in rural Arkansas in the 1980s. In the film, Steven Yeun (The Walking Dead) and South Korean actress Yeri Han play an immigrant couple who, like Chung's own parents, moved to Arkansas to pursue the husband's dream of running a vegetable farm; irrigation issues, marital strife and Grandma, newly arrived from South Korea, soon follow.

After making movies in Rwanda, North Carolina and New York City, Chung may have achieved his biggest success to date by returning to the single-wide mobile home of his youth. "We used to dream about the double-wide," he said.

Since the film's premiere at Sundance last year, where it won the grand jury and audience prizes for best US drama, Minari has generated glowing reviews and Oscars buzz. On Sunday (Feb 28), it took home the Golden Globe for best foreign language film. As for Chung, he is writing two more feature scripts.

Recently, Chung, 42, spoke by video from his home in South Pasadena, California, about his Arkansas childhood, his improbable route to film school and how the semi-autobiographical Minari came to be.

Chung was born in Denver and moved to Arkansas at age two. His hometown, Lincoln, was just as small in real life as it appears in his movie.

After film school at the University of Utah, he accompanied his wife, Valerie, a therapist, to Rwanda, where she had been doing volunteer work with the Christian organisation Youth With a Mission. "When we got married, she asked me to promise to go back with her to Rwanda," he said. Looking for something to do, he created a filmmaking class for 15 local students. As its final project, his class served as the crew on Munyurangabo, a feature about an unlikely friendship between two teenage boys: one Hutu, one Tutsi.

Success at Cannes and the subsequent hoopla (Roger Ebert called the film "a masterpiece") came as a shock for the first-time feature filmmaker.

Chung went on to direct two more features, Lucky Life (2010) and Abigail Harm (2013); they were both, according to the director, largely improvisational affairs. "I was just making movies to make movies," he said. "I was so full of anxiety about becoming a filmmaker that I kind of lost the idea of why I was doing it." Chung vowed he would never make another film without a fully fleshed-out script, then set about writing one.

Minari began filming in 2019 with Oklahoma standing in for Arkansas. Chung, alongside casting director Julia Kim, assembled a cast that included veterans like film and TV actress Yuh-jung Youn, 73, whom Chung had met while teaching in Incheon, and newcomers like Alan S. Kim, now eight.

The five-week shoot took place in the middle of a hot and humid Oklahoma summer, with much of the action set in the family trailer.

The film nods at several aspects of Korean American life rarely seen in contemporary films, such as the fraught nature of Korean churches in the United States and the way many immigrants hold onto a vision of their homeland years after their homeland has moved on.

"Inside that trailer is a protected space of 1970s Korea, a Korea of the time that the parents have left," he said. "The Korea of their memories, basically."

While the film has secured a raft of awards and nominations from festivals and critics' groups, Chung was initially very concerned about two audience members in particular. "Honestly, I was so scared about how I would offend my parents," he said.

They, in turn, are concerned about how Korean audiences will view the film and its story. "My parents worry that a lot of Koreans in the home country will watch this and think, 'Man, this was a stupid family'," he said. "They went to America and really suffered. Not knowing that suffering was really part of that identity of being a Korean American."