A Korean-American family heads east across America, moving to Northwest Arkansas so the father can afford land to start a farm. He and his wife earn money meanwhile at chicken plants by determining the sex of chicks. Their young daughter and even younger son have to adjust to living in a trailer in a white, rural corner of a new state. It’s the ’80s, and staying connected to anything beyond the land and their family is a challenge.
This is the setup for “Minari,” the fourth feature film by Lee Isaac Chung, a director who lived all of that himself as a young kid. Naturally, he takes creative license in the film, but he says the story is true to his family’s experience. When he was 2, they moved from Colorado, where he was born, to Russellville. And then, when he was 7, they moved to Lincoln, a small town on the western edge of Washington County, near the Oklahoma state line.
By coincidence, at that time I was nearly his age and growing up 20 miles away, in a house at the end of a hillside dirt road that offered a western view halfway to Lincoln. “Minari” strikes me, and probably others in the Ozarks, as the most authentic coming-of-age story I’ve seen reflected on screen about our part of the world. Film nerds at large are also enthralled. At Sundance, to pick just one of the festivals where it has cleaned up, “Minari” won the top prize both from the jury and from the audience. Best I can find, it’s the first drama to accomplish that since 2006.
It’s going to be in the mix for major awards, and in a bizarre year for cinema, you could see a small-budget Arkansas immigrant drama rake in some hardware. Steven Yeun (playing the father, Jacob) and supporting actress Youn You-jung (as an utterly indelible grandma) could get nods, as could Chung for directing and writing, and the film overall. In December, “Minari” fans on Twitter raised hell when the Golden Globes confirmed that, despite being an American film, “Minari,” with most of its dialogue in Korean, would be competing in the Foreign Language category instead of the Drama category.
Already “Minari” has launched Chung, who’s 42, into some heady space. Next for him is writing and directing an American live-action version of “Your Name,” a massively successful 2016 Japanese anime that will be distributed by Paramount and J.J. Abrams’ production company, Bad Robot. And in late 2020, MGM announced a production deal with Brad Pitt’s Plan B that includes another Chung joint, a yet-untitled romantic feature.
The Arkansas Times took note of Chung as far back as 1997, when as a high school senior he was an Academic All-Star: “I’ve always wanted to be president,” he told the Times then. The Times caught up with him again in 2014, after his debut feature, the 2007 drama “Munyurangabo,” which Chung filmed in 11 days using local kids in Rwanda as the first Kinyarwanda-language feature film, had helped him jumpstart and support a film industry in Rwanda. Though his parents have moved to Colorado, they still have the old family farm in Lincoln, and are these days less worried about his decision not to pursue medicine or the White House.
I reached Chung in South Pasadena, Calif., via Zoom to compare notes on Ozarks living (“I don’t miss the ticks”), to discuss the merits of a family as a protagonist and to jinx him by invoking the work of noted Oscar hoarder Bong Joon-ho.
What was Lincoln like?
We had one school, a consolidated school. Seventy-nine people in my class. Governor’s School [a summer program for rising seniors], that was big for me. Did you ever do AEGIS [Arkansas Enrichment for Gifted/Talented in Summer] camps? Those were my way out, from being stuck in Lincoln.
I saw you went to Yale for biology.
My sister, she worked really hard, she’s three years older than I am. She did that and after that she told me, ‘You gotta come here.’ She helped teach me what I needed to do to go. Even taking AP classes. We were taking [them] by satellite in Lincoln, videotaped lectures. There’s a whole system for rural schools.
I’d be interested to hear about the reception you’ve gotten as you’ve taken “Minari” on the festival tour. People could either come at it and say, “That’s an amazing immigrant story,” which it is. Or, I watched it and said, “Man, you really captured this place.”
Everyone always talks about the immigrant stuff. To me, this is an Arkansas story or a farming story. There were a lot of people on set from Oklahoma, and on set I felt like there was this interesting divide between the Korean people and the local Oklahoma people. I’m kind of in between both. I enjoy talking to both about different things. It’s fun. I hope people in those types of places feel like it resonates with them.
I come from a farm family, and my dad compulsively grows things. When I was a kid, we had a vineyard. It was him, doing so much work himself, moving rocks, cutting posts for the vines, stringing up grapes. It was us, as kids, pulling weeds and June bugs off the grapes. And “Minari” was resonant in that way. That farm life is hard work! We say it, it’s in the language — it’s a hard row to hoe, for your family.
It always felt like that part of Arkansas, the hill country, everybody’s kind of like my family in that they’re all trying to make it on their own. There are a lot of loners. So my family fit right in. We filmed part of this film on actual farmlands between Tulsa and Arkansas where these Vietnamese Hmong immigrants had started a farm. So that farm is a real farm run by immigrants. I noticed there was this huge stack of rocks where the dad had, by himself, gone through this entire field and pulled rocks out, just so they could plant some vegetables. That reminded me of that work that my dad did. I saw him outside constantly. I noticed with the Hmong, they were very communal in the way they did it. Their extended family would come together and do it. We were much more isolated. To be honest, I think that’s why our farm ultimately failed. It’s just too much for one individual, one family to do.
What were you guys growing?
We primarily did Korean pear trees. My dad felt like, “These are gonna take off. Americans are going to figure this stuff out.”
Who doesn’t love a Korean pear?
I know. He was kind of ahead of his time. People caught onto it much later. At the time, nobody in the American grocery stores was interested. But we would go to Kansas City and Dallas and try to sell these pears.
It’s interesting to consider the loner aspect. It felt to me that you guys actually fit in well. There’s a culture here of doing things the hard way and owning your fate.
I definitely agree with that. You’d be surprised to see my dad hanging out with people in Lincoln, how well he gets along with people there, and how they understand each other.
When he goes now, he hangs out with our neighbor, and they get together and drink. And they just talk. It’s not what you’d expect when you think politically, the way immigrants are put into one camp and farmers are put in another. That’s what I felt I grew up with, even the friends I had in Lincoln.
Around here, people are kind of simple. But they’re not cruel or hateful, which in this part of the country is how they’re often represented.
For sure. That was my experience growing up. When we’d go play basketball somewhere I’d get made fun of by the other team and stuff, but it was always, in my own town, I was one of them.
I am curious about your thoughts about where we are with Korean cinema right now. America’s reigning champion best movie is Korean. “Parasite” is a wildly different film, but it deals with some of the same theme ingredients: You’ve got a family, they’re in the basement, they’ve got their sights set on hustling and moving their way up. I wonder what you see in your work as having a connection to that sound or that tenor that America is responding to from Korean artists.
Yeah, I wonder. I don’t want to go too far out on a limb with this one, but with director Bong’s film, I felt a deep sense of solidarity with that. He had made his family the protagonist, in a way. It’s almost the family itself.
It’s a very democratic protagonist. And I thought “Minari” was as well.
Yeah, and I wonder if there’s something cultural about that. You see that in other Asian films. Films by Yasujiro Ozu and other filmmakers who might train their attention on a family, and not just a hero protagonist.
In American film, of course, the formula is, you have a hero as a protagonist, and that is the lens through which you see the world. You’ve got one man against the world by the end of it. It is nice to see the narrative success of a film where the whole thing is the family.
That’s the idea I was hoping for, and that Steven [Yeun] would allow us the American touchpoint, where he’s like the Western hero who is seeking a new life in the frontier, that sort of thing. But quickly the film turns into a lot about the entire family dynamics. I wonder if that might seem different to people. I hope it does.
I love film, and I worry sometimes that we do ourselves a disservice by adopting its conventions. Film is so seductive, and offers a very Americanized view of heroism. Or how we view the role of the lone, angry male.
That’s right. Who’s out to conquer, in some way.
Yeah! Or who’s aggrieved, and who’s out to take revenge on people, and the system sucks, and all of it. I think we internalize it.
For sure. One of the things I was thinking about with this was, I wanted to tell a story that’s a journey into vulnerability rather than conquest. I remember going to film school, and one of the first things I’m hearing is, “Your story needs to be about someone,” and that someone wants something. And you set up these obstacles for why this someone, who’s usually a male, can’t get that thing. And then you find a way for that person to accomplish what he set out to do. I studied biology in college, and I feel like evolutionary biology was about that as well: The reason why we are human beings is because we have conquered this species and that species. There were advantages in this trait that led us to survive and to conquer. And I was interested much more in the idea that, what if it’s the opposite of that? The opposite of that makes us human, and makes for a good story.
Describe, then, the opposite of that. What’s the opposite in that case?
Weakness. Or even, in this case, what if it’s destruction that leads to salvation, in a way? What if it’s losing everything that leads to some kind of redemption? I don’t know. I felt that much more personally in my own life. That I’ve always gained by losing.
What’s been your parents’ reaction to the movie?
They were so scared of this film before they saw it. And I was so scared of showing it to them. It was like a big sigh of relief when I showed it to them. We watched it together and it was pretty emotional, to be honest. It felt like we were seeing each other anew, in a way.
I don’t have kids, but I think a terrifying part of having kids would be being seen so thoroughly, to be scanned so completely by someone paying so much attention. All the time. The original Siri in your house.
And they’re going to carry that with them! My dad jokes with me now: “Now that I know you’re going to do stuff like this, I’m gonna be on my best behavior.” But it’s changed our relationship in a good way. We’re much more free with each other. He feels like maybe I harbor less judgment than he thought I had on him. I think he always felt like the life he brought us to was difficult and maybe I had negative feelings about that. But I think he saw that I see it in a much different way than that. And I think my mom, she felt good that I was able to air some of the feelings that she has about how difficult that time in her life was.
Was there something specific to Lincoln or Arkansas or Northwest Arkansas that you feel like, you could not have made this movie if you’d grown up in Indiana or North Carolina or Utah?
That feeling of finding solidarity in isolation, in a way. I did feel like a lot of friends that I had, that they also, their parents had moved to Arkansas for a desire to have a new start. When I hear friends talk about growing up in places in the deep South where people have been there for generations, I think that there’s much more of a culture that is established and particular. But in the Ozarks I just felt there was something more democratic about the place. Everyone’s trying to figure it out, somehow.