Minari It’s been a lifetime in the works for writer-director Lee Isaac Chung. Born in the US to immigrant parents and raised on a small farm in rural Arkansas, he always knew that his experience was fertile ground for a movie, if not his directorial debut: the Rwandan setting. Munyurangabo – then eventually. So, he began writing memories, drawing his youth for the moments that resonated with him decades later, but it wasn’t until he landed on the title that he knew it was time to tell his story.
“A filmmaker I respect named Lee Chang-dong once told me, ‘You don’t start a movie or a script until you can name it,'” Chung tells ET by Zoom. “The last memory I had was of my grandmother and I collecting these plants in a stream, minari, and I thought, ‘That’s the name.’
The film centers on a Korean-American family in the 1980s: husband and wife Jacob and Monica, their children Anne and David, and their foul-mouthed, wrestling-loving mother Soonja, as they settle in the Ozarks in search of their Dream. American. As he wrote, Chung kept coming back to the memory of the minari growing along a stream. “I wanted to write a movie that ended with a family gathering in this place,” he says. “That was the North Star.”
Chung sent his script to Steven Yeun, who happens to be his cousin by marriage, and the actor signed on as Jacob. He cast Yeri Han as Monica and newcomers Noel Cho and Alan S. Kim as his children, and the legendary Korean actress Youn Yuh-Jung agreed to play the grandmother. “I asked my friends who gave me the script, ‘Is this a true story of him? And she said yes. So, I said,’ Okay, I’ll do it, ‘” Youn recalls. “You can’t beat any other story other than his, I think.”
It was when Chung began talking to his cast about the film that he began to realize that his autobiographical script had the power to connect beyond himself. He recalls an early conversation with Youn in which he shared memories of his own grandmother who he hoped to incorporate into his character. “For example, the moment she eats the chestnut and offers it to Alan, it’s something she remembers herself,” says Chung. “When I started to see those shared experiences, that’s when I thought, ‘This is what could make this special, if we really investigate those things.
Those moments continued as the cast and crew met on the set in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Chung’s friends and his cast came from Korea to help out. Youn, as usual, took on a bigger role to lead the cast, even cohabiting with Han during filming in a case of life imitating art. Although Han says he initially responded to how much Minari Chung reflected as a person, while playing Monica, “I realized how young my own parents were when they raised us and how much trial and error they must have gone through.”
“The journeys that all these characters go on and the individual journey that I was on within this character completely revolved,” Yeun adds for her part. “When I looked back and saw how deep the bond was between the cast and the crew in such a short time, I had a really special feeling that this was something that touched something very fundamental and real.”
As has been said, in the particular is the universal. No more proof of that is needed than Minari, a movie that started out as a writer’s personal memories and only got more specific as it came to life with all the details, without feeling the need to simplify itself for a wider audience. It is a deeply Korean movie. Y deeply United States, but with which anyone can relate.
“What touched me the most was the way he was confident and bold in his own point of view, that the perspective from which he spoke was uncompromising and he was not trying to justify himself or explain himself,” says Yeun. “I was just looking through the lens of this family and nothing else.”
MinariThe resonance only deepened when the audience found it. The film premiered at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Grand Jury Prize and the US Dramatic Audience Award. “Sundance was an incredible and very wild experience,” Yeun recalls, “of which this movie went beyond the things we tried to categorize at the beginning. [and] just reaching out to each other in our own humanity. “
Accolades for the festival gave way to rave reviews that led to nominations. AFI and the National Review Board appointed Minari as one of the Best Films of 2020, with awards season recognition at the Critics Choice Awards, Indie Spirit Awards, and Screen Actors Guild Awards. (In the latter, Yeun is up for Best Actor and Youn for Best Supporting Actress, while the ensemble was nominated for Outstanding Cast in a Movie.) The Oscars will surely follow, something MinariThe cast says they never would have dreamed.
“Of course, I knew there were all these awards in Hollywood,” says Korea-based Han, “but I had no idea there were so many! Every day we hear news and Minari he is constantly breaking his own record. But it is a bit unsettling. I am grateful and very happy, but it doesn’t feel entirely real. I’m grateful for these precious memories, and as I get older, I think I’ll look back and say, ‘Oh this, yeah, that happened to me at one point in my life.
Amid the accolades and honors a controversy arose, no fault of Minariown self. The film garnered a single nomination at this year’s Golden Globes, to the exclusion of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. Minari in the Best Picture categories, as more than 50 percent of the dialogue is in a language other than English. (It got its nomination for Best Foreign Language Film.) It is what The farewell endured last year, prompting director Lulu Wang to tweet, “I haven’t seen a more American movie than #Minari this year … We really need to change these outdated rules that characterize Americans as only English-speaking.”
“I am very proud that I was a part of something like this, that I was able to do this with these people and that as it goes out into the world, it also challenges these notions,” Yeun explains. “You can’t rely on rules and institutions to capture what reality really is like – it’s often slow to get to these things, and I’m glad I’m part of something that hints at those things.”
“For me, what is bittersweet is just hearing other people tell how they felt as foreigners in this place,” says Chung. “And I know that feeling all too well. I feel like I’ve heard a lot of people feel hurt, my friends and stuff, but at the same time we focus on the movie itself and what this story is about. It’s about a family that doesn’t allow let no one define who they are: they are living their lives and defining themselves and really trying to keep an eye on who they are on this earth, and that’s what we expect from the movie itself, that [despite] these external definitions and everything attributed to it, in the end, is just a story about human beings. “
Minari is in select theaters now and available to order on February 26.