• January 31, 2023

‘Minari’ Director Lee Isaac Chung Says The Film Began As A List Of Memories : NPR

The couple Jacob and Monica Yi (Steven Yeun and Yeri Han) move from California to a farm in Arkansas in the film Minari. Director Lee Isaac Chung says the film was inspired by his own rural upbringing. Josh Ethan Johnson / A24 Hide Caption

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Josh Ethan Johnson / A24

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

Josh Ethan Johnson / A24

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 struggled to embark on a new project. Inspired by Willa Cather’s writing about her roots in Nebraska, he decided to look into his own past. So he went to the local library and spent the afternoon making a list of memories of his own rural upbringing.

“I didn’t just want to write 80 [memories]But so many flowed out of me in one session, “says Chung.” They were little visual memories, little details. “

The list included a description of the lunch bucket that Chung’s parents brought with them when they worked in a chicken factory – and which they sometimes used to keep chicks from dying. Chung also noted the mysterious herbal medicine his grandmother brought when she came to the family from Korea and the minari plants she planted on the family farm.

'Minari' follows a family's immigration with humor, humanity and hope

“When I had these memories, I realized that there was an arc of a story there,” says Chung. “This family really shows up in the middle of nowhere and the father didn’t tell anyone in the family that he would buy this farmland.”

Although Minari started with a very personal list, the themes of family and struggle found resonance with a wider audience. The film recently won the Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

“I’ve seen people who are not Korean immigrants work on this film and also feel suffocated and emotional because they remember their own families,” says Chung. “Immigration stories are family stories. … What is often overlooked in this story is the fact that much of it happens because of feelings of love, feelings of wanting to sacrifice one another.”

Interview highlights

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

She also brings a sense of history to the family, that’s how I feel. This family is trying to move into the future, but they really carry that weight of the past. And in a way, I guess that’s not intuitive. But it brings the old country in one way. And that kind comes from personal life. My sister and I were two happy kids in Arkansas. And my mother had to start working … [in the chicken factory] for financial reasons and we couldn’t just go to work with them. We need someone to watch us. So my parents brought my grandmother with them from Korea and she was kind of a shock to our senses at first.

The director of 'Minari' reflects on the experience of the Yi family and parallels with his own

It just didn’t fit our ideas of what a grandmother should be, and neither did our idea of ​​what Korean culture was itself. After everything my parents taught us about Korean culture, respect and all these things, my grandmother came along and she is very crazy and wanted to teach us to play. There was just something about this relationship that worried me a lot as a kid, but also what turned out to be exactly what I needed to survive. I always look back on those years and my childhood and I think it brought so much joy and happiness into our lives. And that’s what I hope she does in this movie.

How the Korean War Affected His Family

Now when I look back as an adult I can see my mother and grandmother in a different way that I didn’t understand as a child. My mother grew up without a father because he died in the Korean War. And my grandmother, her life was completely mixed up because of it. She was 20 years old. Her husband died and she had a baby daughter. She had to figure out how to raise them. … Your whole life has been shaped by this war and this tragedy.

The fact that she came to the United States to help my mother, my mother was her only child, and my grandmother sold all of her possessions in Korea. She sold this shop that she ran with another Korean War widow and came to the US to lead a life of anonymity. She never learned the language. She suffered a stroke. She died and simply gave her life to help us not face this kind of suffering. …

You hear me getting emotional I just think this film would kind of capture who [my grandmother] was someone who is invisible. I would hope it will be seen if that makes sense.

You hear me getting emotional … I guess I just hope this film somehow captures who she was, someone who is invisible. I would hope it will be seen if that makes sense.

After keeping the project a secret from his family until it was completed

I was incredibly nervous when they found out what I was doing. They are private individuals and I felt that in a way I was doing wrong by writing a story about them and trying to present their perspectives and things without letting them write, without giving them the agency to write them . But I just had a real need to tell this story. … I figured I’d tell you one day if this movie was going to be made … but for now … personally, I have to write this script.

So I wrote it and didn’t tell them anything. Every now and then I would talk to my mother and ask her some questions like, “Why did Grandma bring money from Korea? How did she get the money?” I would ask all these little details and my mom would say, “You really care about your past.” I think they got suspicious.

A dream challenges a family in 'Minari'

After we got funding for this film, I said to my parents, “It looks like I could do another film. I got the funding.” And they were more pleased about that. They didn’t care what the movie was about. They are just glad that I am working. … And they found out that Yuh-jung Youn, the actress, is on board and she is their favorite actress. … it’s a big deal. And she was always at home with us when we were growing up. She’s on everyone’s favorite television show.

So my mom just thought, “You finally did it. This is great.” And then she asked, “So what is she playing?” And I said, “Well, she’s that grandmother.” And then I said to them, “And there is a mother and a father and there are two children and they live in a trailer at home.” And I didn’t tell them this is our family story, but obviously my mom is starting to put things together. And I think it made my parents even more nervous that I wasn’t coming to them completely clean, that I wasn’t going to tell them, “This is our story.” So they were very concerned, by Thanksgiving 2019 we had finished the cut and I just decided I had to get that out of the way and finally show them off. And I was a nervous wreck. I had no idea what they would think.

When he first watched the film with his family

We watched the movie together and slowly I started to see my mother start crying, my sister, my father. And it just felt like it was such a cathartic experience for all of us. It was really special, really amazing. …

My mother told me that she … could never 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 finally said after seeing this movie, she could see my grandma in her dreams. That was so special. And for my sister, she said that from that time on she blocked so much because she found it quite difficult. But she loved to see it in beauty, in the beauty of what we had in this time.

When selecting “Minari” as the title

I just thought there was something poetic about the plant [minari] also. It’s a hearty plant. It grows in places where nothing else can be grown. It can take root in very poor soil conditions. And what it does in the end is revitalize the soil and purify the water. It has a cleansing effect and so I thought there was a poetic resonance there with which this plant speaks.

When I was doing this exercise of writing down all the memories, the last thing I came to was the little bit of minari that my grandmother and I went to, that my grandmother took care of me, and I threw stones at snakes. … When I had this memory, I realized that the name of the film must be like that.

And I thought, “I’m not going to translate into English. I’m just going to leave it as it is. And if it is ever done people will have to learn how to say the word if they want to.” To see it. “

I just thought there was something poetic about the plant too. It’s a hearty plant. It grows in places where nothing else can be grown. It can take root in very poor soil conditions. And what it does in the end is revitalize the soil and purify the water. It has a cleansing effect and so I thought there was a poetic resonance there with which this plant speaks.

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

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