The cast and crew of Minari attend the 2020 Sundance Film Festival film premiere at the Library Center Theater in Park City, Utah on January 26, 2020. Chung is second from the right. Cindy Ord / Getty Images hide subtitles
Cindy Ord / Getty Images
Cindy Ord / Getty Images
Lee Isaac Chung’s new film Minari takes its name from a green, edible plant that appears to grow all over East Asia.
And even if the film is planted in the US, it will thrive.
This is not exactly the case with the Yi family. Parents Monica and Jacob are Korean immigrants who moved their two second generation children to a trailer home in Arkansas to start a new life. It’s the Reagan era, and the parents work as chicken sexes, curling the undersides of the baby birds and sorting them by gender.
But Jacob’s real ambition is to use his land to open a farm and sell products – the American Dream or some version of it.
Minari is partly shaped by Chung’s own memories of growing up on a farm with parents with a migrant background. Chung reflected on the film in an interview with NPR.
Highlights of the interview
Writing a story that is not just his own, but his parents’ as well
Yes, this part is actually incredibly difficult because I always felt that people should have the agency to tell their own stories. And I wondered if I am wronging them. I think one of the things I had to find out for myself pretty early on was the rule that these are not my parents and this is not me or my family, that this has to somehow become a family that only exists in the Minari film . You know, I changed the names of the characters to get a completely different family name. They are now the Yi family, not the Chung family. And when I did that, I really invested in this idea and given myself the freedom to just let it be myself and not have to stick to anyone in my life or my parents’.
How the second generation writes a story that is told from the perspective of the first generation – and the possible blind spots
I worry about these blind spots. I still worry about the blind spots to be honest. And I think that has to do with this – when you are second generation Koreans it is difficult to really see your parents fully. You see the sacrifices they make. And on top of that, you have a greater language barrier, a cultural barrier. So, in the end, you don’t see your parents for who they are in some ways. I don’t know how to explain this, but in some ways you are feeling this growing gap.
I think for myself I just had to start trusting the idea that they are just human. And what I did with this movie was that I started to bring in more of my own personal experience, my own personal fears and thoughts, and in a way, explore myself to see who they are just because we’re in in some way they are all the same.
What his parents think about the film
I have a feeling that, first of all, they are very proud of what is happening. I think they get a little overwhelmed in a way. I mean, it feels like there’s quite a lens to our lives and their history. And of course I think this creates a certain ambivalence. But they are so supportive and they really love the movie. And they felt like it really captured the spirit of what we went through as a family.
But my father was on the farm in Arkansas. He cut grass on his tractor. And he said a guy pulled up and took a picture of him with that long telephoto lens. So, you know, stuff like that, he’s starting to get a little worried. And I told him not to worry the paparazzi wouldn’t storm and break his door. But I think he’s starting to feel a bit of that focus. And you know, we’re trying to find out as a family.
About the racism that appears on the outer edges of some scenes in the film, such as when the family goes to church
I think there was no reason to bring this scene to church. For us, the Church was a way of making our first entry into the Arkansas fellowship. My parents took us to Lincoln First Baptist Church so we could make friends and learn English. And many friendships could start this way where there were some who focus on the differences between us and them. But it would inevitably lead to us becoming really good friends with each other.
And for me, this church scene, I wanted to do it that way because I felt like the discourse about racism in this country, maybe this film could add another level to that. And it’s not about ignoring racism – it’s not to say that there is no such thing as racism because I’ve certainly sensed it as a kid and had some pretty horrific moments – but often it’s just the endeavor of connecting and that it is There is friction in this quest to connect and that it even goes both ways at times where it is this family that you see in the film. Often times this family is trying to figure out white people and saying … sometimes derogatory things. … So it kind of goes both ways. It’s not just the Asians who show up waiting to be accepted. But it is really an attempt on both sides to see each other as a community.
About what this movie says about the American dream
I think in this country we have many different people who dream very different things. And I think I didn’t necessarily want to refute any dream, or even that idea of the American dream we have, but rather speak more into the feeling that we might be waking up from a dream these days. I feel like we had to wake up from something in 2020. And what are we left with when we wake up from it? And for me this film tries to talk about the things that last and the things that don’t last. And whether the American dream fits it or not, you know, I think – I’ll leave that to the viewers. But I think the thing you find in the Minari patch will feed you. That will stay with you.
Mano Sundaresan produced this interview for the radio.