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The Korean American family of film Minari huddle in front of green shoots
Photograph: Supplied

‘The past would creep in’: Minari’s Lee Isaac Chung on Oscar-bound family drama

The American filmmaker on drawing on real life, loving his gran and his number one fan

Stephen A Russell
Written by
Stephen A Russell

Standing on the set designed to resemble the trailer he grew up in was surreal for Korean American writer-director Lee Isaac Chung. ‘There was this weird moment when I walked on that trailer that Yong Ok Lee designed and I opened the back door, and I thought I was gonna see the farm,’ he chuckles. ‘I was suddenly six-years-old again, and that was really trippy.’

There were a lot of trippy moments. Chung’s fourth feature, the loosely autobiographical Minari intimately traces the curve of one immigrant Korean family’s attempt to settle in rural Arkansas and make a go of it as farmers. Some family members are more invested than others.

Already up for a Golden Globe, it’s tipped for Oscar nominations too. The ridiculously adorable Alan Kim plays David, who is basically the six-year-old Chung. But these days the director is closer in age to The Walking Dead and Burning star Steven Yeun, who plays David’s dad Jacob. Yeri Han is his sceptical wife Monica, with Noel Cho as David's older sis Anne. Monica’s mother Soonja eventually joins them in the cramped, wood-panelled trailer that sits on concrete blocks, as played by esteemed South Korean actor Yuh-jung Youn, aka ‘YJ’.

‘I noticed that [weird feeling] a lot with various scenes where suddenly it felt like my grandma was talking to me, or that my dad was punishing me,’ Chung adds. ‘The past would creep in, even though I was trying to actively distance myself from it to get the job done.’

While this is his most personal film to date, it’s not strictly true to his ‘80s youth. ‘That was something that we often talked about with costume and the production design,’ Chung says. ‘We didn’t want this to be a kitschy film. But we wanted enough of a touch of the ‘80s to set up the feeling that this is a timeless sort of story existing outside of the present moment, without ever dipping into nostalgia.’

The films that excite me most tend to be the films that seem like voices that we haven’t heard of before

Chung drew on Chekhov novella The Steppe, about the adventures of a young boy sent away from home, and Willa Cather’s elegiac novel My Ántonia, as well as dipping into some recognisably Biblical imagery. None of this is layered on thick. Subtlety is the film’s quiet strength. There’s something universally recognisable about this everyday family drama that unfolds in a quiet, unassuming way, until its deeper currents wash over you. There’s a lullaby-like hum to its gently rocking rhythms, best personified by the Korean weed that lends the film its name. It takes hold in a sun-dappled forest clearing where Soonja plants it.

‘I just feel like the garden is a place where you can explore humanity quite deeply,’ Chung says. ‘And I thought that would lend itself very well to the feeling of a dream that a child is having.’

As many critics have noted, Minari is the American Dream depicted in a form less-well seen. ‘The films that excite me most tend to be the films that seem like voices that we haven’t heard of before,’ Chung says. ‘That’s what I’m always hoping to see.’

Youn’s spritely performance evokes the very best kind of fairy godmother. ‘I feel like there’s a feeling there, particularly with grandparents, where they’ve kind of lived out all the dreams and failures and all these things that we’re all going through as adults,’ Chung says of the praise being heaped on Youn’s performance. ‘And I think maybe we all kind of feel deep down that they figured it out. And, yeah, that’s what I remember about my grandmother.’

I think my daughter knows what this film means to me and that I’m honestly making it for her

I found myself aching for the loss of my own mum’s mum. Apparently, Youn was thinking a lot about her late grandmother while filming too, rather than her own experience of being one. The intergenerational quality of the story helps it sing. Chung’s seven-year-old daughter was on set a lot, and it struck a chord with her too. ‘I couldn’t find my script, and then I found she was reading it,’ Chung says. ‘She read it twice. And even now, she’s all things Minari. She’s one of my biggest supporters. She’s just been really sweet, but I think she knows what this film means to me and that I’m honestly making it for her.’

So, his daughter is on side and it’s already racking up awards, but what do his parents make of the depiction of tough times for a married couple not entirely unlike themselves? ‘They’re so proud of me for having done this, and they’ve really embraced the story, even though I wasn’t sure how they would feel,’ he reveals. ‘I was very scared to show them the film, but they were very touched by it. Unfortunately, my grandmother passed away when I was younger and she’s someone I thought a lot about as I was writing this story. We’re all just so happy that YJ is getting so much notice, because I feel like in some ways we are remembering[my grandmother]. We’re trying to do her some justice, to really honour and celebrate her.’

Minari is in Australian cinemas now. It’s available to stream in the US Fri Feb 26 and in the UK Mar 19.

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