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Lee Isaac Chung Jotted Down Some Family Memories – They Became 'Minari'

Married couple Jacob and Monica Yi (Steven Yeun and Yeri Han) relocate from California to a farm in Arkansas in the film <em>Minari</em>. Director Lee Isaac Chung says the film was inspired by his own rural upbringing.
Married couple Jacob and Monica Yi (Steven Yeun and Yeri Han) relocate from California to a farm in Arkansas in the film <em>Minari</em>. Director Lee Isaac Chung says the film was inspired by his own rural upbringing.

Director Lee Isaac Chung's inspiration for Minari, his semi-autobiographical film about a Korean American father who moves his family to a farm in rural Arkansas, began with a list.

Chung had been struggling to settle on a new project. Inspired by Willa Cather's writing about her Nebraska roots, he decided to look into his own past. So he went to the local library and spent the afternoon writing a list of memories from his own rural upbringing.

"I didn't set out to just write 80 [memories], but that's how many just flowed out of me in one session," Chung says. "These were little visual memories, little details."

The list included a description of the lunch pail that Chung's parents would bring with them while working at a chicken factory — and which they would sometimes use to save chicks from being killed. Chung also made a note of the mysterious herbal medicine his grandmother brought over when she joined the family from Korea, and of the minari plants that she sowed on the family's farm.

"Once I had this set of memories, I realized that there was an arc of a story there," Chung says. "This family showing up in the middle of nowhere, really, with the dad not having told anyone in the family that he was going to buy this farmland."

Although Minaribegan with a very personal list, its themes of family and struggle have resonated with a broader audience. The filmrecently won the Golden Globe award for best foreign language film.

"I've seen people who aren't Korean immigrants work on this film and also feel choked up and feel emotional about it because they remember their own families," Chung says. "Immigration stories are family stories. ... What often gets overlooked in that story is the fact that a lot of that is happening due to the feeling of love, that feeling of a desire to sacrifice for each other. "


Interview highlights

On the colorful grandmother character (played by Yuh-jung Youn)

She's also bringing a sense of history to the family, is the way I feel. This family is trying to move into the future, but she really carries this weight of the past. And in a way that's, I guess, counterintuitive. But she's bringing the old country in a way. And that kind of comes from personal life. My sister and I, we were two happy-go-lucky kids in Arkansas. And my mom had to start working ... [in the chicken factory] for financial reasons, and we couldn't just keep going to the workplace with them. We need somebody to watch us. So my parents brought my grandmother over from Korea and at first she was kind of a shock to our senses.

She just didn't fit in with our conceptions of what a grandmother should be and also our conception of what even Korean culture was. After everything my parents were teaching us about Korean culture, about being respectful and all these things, here came my grandmother, who is very crass and wanted to teach us how to gamble. There was just something about that relationship that was both very unsettling for me as a kid, but also what ended up proving to be just what I needed to survive. I always look back on those years and my childhood, and I think she brought so much joy and happiness to our lives. And that's what I hope she does in this film.

On how the Korean War impacted his family

When I look back now, as an adult, I'm able to see my mom and grandmother in a different way that I didn't understand as a kid. My mom grew up without a father because he died in the Korean War. And my grandmother, her life was completely upended because of that. She was 20 years old. Her husband died and she had a young daughter. She had to figure out how to raise her. ... Her whole life was almost defined by that war and that tragedy.

The fact that she came over to the U.S. to help my mom, my mom was her only child, and my grandmother sold all of her possessions in Korea. She sold this store that she was running with another Korean War widow and came over to the U.S. and kind of lived a life of anonymity. She never learned the language. She suffered a stroke. She passed away and she just kind of gave her life over to helping us not face that sort of suffering. ...

You're hearing me get emotional. ... I guess I just hope that this film would somehow capture who [my grandmother] was, someone who is invisible. I would hope that she would be seen, if that makes sense.

You're hearing me get emotional. ... I guess I just hope that this film would somehow capture who she was, someone who is invisible. I would hope that she would be seen, if that makes sense.

On keeping the project a secret from his family until it was finished

I was incredibly nervous about them finding out what I was doing. They're private people, and I felt like I might be doing an injustice in some ways by writing a story about them and trying to represent their perspectives and stuff without letting them write it, not giving them the agency to write it. But I just felt this real need to tell this story. ... I figured, I'll tell them one day if this film gets made ... but for now ... personally I need to write this script.

So I wrote it and I didn't tell them anything. Every now and then, I would talk to my mom and kind of ask her some probing questions like, "Why did Grandma bring money from Korea? How did she get that money?" I would ask all these little details and my mom would say, "You're really taking an interest in your past." I think they were getting suspicious.

So once we got financing to make this film, I just told my parents, "It looks like I can make another film. I got financing." And they were more happy about that. They didn't care what the film's about. They're just glad that I'm working. ... And they found out that Yuh-jung Youn, the actress, is on board and she is their favorite actor. ... She's a huge deal. And she was always in our home when we were growing up. She's in every favorite television show.

So my mom just thought, "You finally made it. This is great." And then she asked, "So what is she playing?" And I said, "Well, she's this grandmother." And then I told them, "And there's a mom and a dad and there are two kids and they live in a trailer home." And I didn't tell them that this is our family's story, but obviously my mom is starting to piece things together. And I think it made my parents even more nervous that I was not coming completely clean to them, that I would not tell them, "This is our story." So they were super concerned until Thanksgiving of 2019 we had finished the cut and I just decided I have to get this out of the way and finally show them. And I was a nervous wreck. I had no idea what they would think.

On watching the film with his family for the first time

We watched the film together and slowly I just started to see my mom starting to weep, my sister, my dad. And it just felt like it was such a cathartic experience for all of us. It was really special, really incredible. ...

My mother, she was telling me that she ... never was able to see my grandmother in her dreams. She said that she was always jealous of me because I would always see my grandma in my dreams. And she said, finally, after watching this film, she could see my grandma in her dreams. That was so special. And for my sister, she said that she had just blocked out so much from that time because she found it to be pretty difficult. But she loved seeing it in beauty, in the beauty of what we had in that time.

On choosing "Minari" as the title

I just thought there's something so poetic about the plant [minari] as well. It's a hearty plant. It kind of grows in places where you can't grow anything else. It can take root in very poor soil conditions. And what it ends up doing is actually revitalizes the soil and it cleans up the water. It has a purifying effect and so I thought there's a poetic resonance there that this plant speaks to.

When I was doing that exercise of writing down all the memories, the last thing that I came to was that little patch of minari that my grandmother and I would go to, that my grandmother would tend and I would throw rocks at snakes. ... Once I had that memory, it just dawned on me that this is what the name of the film is going to have to be.

And I thought, "I'm not going to translate to English. I'm just going to let it be what it is. And if it's ever made, then I guess people will have to learn how to say the word if they want to see it."

I just thought there's something so poetic about the plant as well. It's a hearty plant. It kind of grows in places where you can't grow anything else. It can take root in very poor soil conditions. And what it ends up doing is actually revitalizes the soil and it cleans up the water. It has a purifying effect and so I thought there's a poetic resonance there that this plant speaks to.

Ann Marie Baldonado and Kayla Lattimore produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.