chat room

Minari Director Lee Isaac Chung on His Oscar Nominations and Existential Angst

Photo: Rich Fury/Getty Images

In her essay “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction,” Ursula K. Le Guin ventures an idea of writing that is centered not on the hunter, but the gatherer. Instead of the warrior’s journey, brandished with bloodlust, why not the basket weaver who gathers oats? “It’s unfamiliar, it doesn’t come easily, thoughtlessly, to the lips as the killer story does,” Le Guin writes. “One relationship among elements in the novel may well be that of conflict, but the reduction of narrative to conflict is absurd.”

Of the many spiritual texts for Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari, Le Guin’s theory of narrative flows throughout; conflict exists in the film, but does not define it. Instead, Minari is a container for a world: a Korean American family moving from California to the Ozarks in pursuit of the father Jacob’s (Steven Yeun) dream of building a farm. Convention would have dictated a more familiar story in which Jacob proved his doubters (his wife, Monica, played beautifully by Han Yeri) wrong; his story would be another immigrant tale kneeling at the altar of the American Dream. Instead, Minari is a more restrained creature — observant and patient, taking in the physical and emotional environment through son David’s (Alan Kim) eyes. At the end, Chung suggests that instead of telling a story about the spear, Minari is one about putting it down. “This film has a lot to do with the idea of masculinity and femininity, and the classic idea of ‘What does it mean to be a man?’” he says. “That’s something that I needed for my own life, because I felt like I was one who was always trying to have the spear.”

On Oscar nominations morning, Minari received six nods, including screenplay and directing nominations for Chung. No doubt the traditional Oscar narrative will try to have him take up the spear again — the underdog wins! — but Chung feels hesitant: Making the film was about trying to tell a new story, but in order to do so, it was also about letting go. In a phone conversation in late March, we discussed that feeling of discomfort, the final shots of Minari, and what an American version of the Japanese anime Your Name might look like.

Have you been able to take some time for yourself? 
Everything is still busy. I’m working on trying to see if we can film this project Your Name this year. I don’t know if anyone should be adapting it, but I am, but I’m doing it.

Yeah, often my reaction to Hollywood doing American versions of Korean or Japanese IP is just: Watch the original. 
I don’t think you’re wrong about that in any way. I have fears if we’re doing it the right way. I like the idea of doing a transformation that happens when you do animation to live action. They wanted me to do a very American take on it. Toho Studios are of the mind that a live-action adaptation shouldn’t be Japanese, because in that case, they would rather the film just exist as the animated one. They want to see how the work can be transformed to an American film. That’s the way they communicated it to me.

What’s the thing you’re hoping to accomplish with a live-action animated version that wouldn’t have been possible in the existing Makoto Shinkai anime? 
What I want to go into is the interconnectedness of people from different cultures in the U.S., which I think is different from the Japanese version because they’re looking at Japanese people more as a singular culture, whereas in the U.S. we have more of a multicultural reality. I’m wanting to play within that space. I do have red flags that go off on projects like this. I was hoping that the way that I contribute is to let it be a film that entwines different cultures, and that’s something I feel that we, as Asian Americans, consider — those relationships. I don’t have a very articulate way to put this, but I’ve always been interested in the ways that different cultures interact and the ways in which I feel like an outsider to that, but also someone who is trying to interweave and be part of different cultures as well as among Asian Americans. I don’t know if you ever feel that way.

I’ve often wondered what it would be like to have grown up in Korea as opposed to the U.S., and I end up coming away with an appreciation for the fact that a sense of being a minority was helpful in terms of gaining a more expansive empathy that I don’t think would have been possible if I had been the ethnic majority. I love Korea, but I often think Koreans would benefit from Asian American studies. 
I feel like not feeling completely comfortable somehow feels right. It feels like that’s a good place to be, that liminal space. I don’t think of it as a disadvantage; I don’t think of it as a tragedy. I feel like it’s an important place to stake your being or to accept and to see from. I liked that space.

Well, congratulations on all of the Oscar nominations. How do you feel?It was unreal, and I still find it unreal. I even said to my wife as we were falling asleep last night, “I can’t believe we got nominated for Oscars,” which is really crazy. We didn’t have a long time to celebrate, because the events in Atlanta unfolded immediately after the news. I think my mind was with that for much of the week.

Are you hanging in there with the press push?
There’s some existential angst, but I think I’ve calmed down a bit. So much of my past 10 years, with my career not going so well, was invested in coming to peace with that and coming to peace with myself as not being someone who is getting accolades and awards. There is an aspect in which I really feel the ephemeral nature of it all. It’s hard to talk about and to wrap my head around when, obviously, I think I should be grateful and really enjoy this ride. I find myself oscillating a lot with gratitude, but also some unease, because I know these things shouldn’t really define a person in any way. A first-world problem. I’m not crying about it or anything.

My understanding is that the script for Minari began with a writing exercise during which you wrote down 80 visual memories. Could you talk about then structuring that into a script? 
When I started that memory exercise, I couldn’t crack the transformation of the memories into a story for a while. It was because every iteration of the story I was doing started with the entire family moving into this trailer home together, because that’s actually what happened. My grandmother was already living with us at that point. Realizing that if the grandmother comes in as an outsider somewhere in that first act made me think, “Oh, the grandmother would then be part of a bargain.” Once that idea came into my mind, it dawned on me that I really do need to put in all of these plot points. I had a midpoint and an end of a second act — all these different things that I used to shun as a writer. I used to think that sticking to certain conventional writing points was terrible for cinema, and that if the language of cinema were to progress, it needed to move beyond that. I had already gone through that road before. I made a film, Lucky Life, that adapted a poem. It doesn’t really have much of a dramatic structure to it. With this I wanted to try to go back to the idea of a classical structure. I ended up studying a lot of films for that to figure out what the story beats might be. Rossellini’s films Stromboli and Voyage to Italy were two that I quite looked at a lot.

When did you know the film would end with this dramatic peak of the fire?
That was always in the memory exercise because a fire actually happened on our farm, and in real life, the fire happened and it came and went, and it was just another tragedy among other difficulties in our lives. I knew it would need to come near the end because of what it is. I just had to figure out, What did the fire end up doing for this family? Early on, I did want it to serve as a purging element to the story. I really respond a lot to Flannery O’Connor’s stories and the things that she writes about when she talks about grace. She takes on almost a secular view of grace in which grace emerges out of very mundane objects and events and people. That’s what I wanted this film to end up doing with that fire.

There’s also a toughness or tensile strength in O’Connor’s prose. Was that something that you were thinking about? 
Yeah. One of my favorite quotes of hers: “All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful.” She has the most incredible quotes. It’s all because they sound so tough, but within that toughness there’s this real attention to a tender sort of redemption and grace. I respond a lot to that.

Are you religious?
That’s a tricky question, because I feel like an outsider many times with that as well. I see it as a very private thing. I’m not an Evangelical, but I’ll go to Evangelical churches. I’m a member of a church that’s Episcopal. I haven’t been really talking too much about it.

Is that part of why Flannery O’Connor also resonates with you?
Oh, definitely. There’s a certain type of people I just feel completely aligned with and feel like that person understands me. Someone who is not judgmental and not a purist about various moral lines in the sand, but who is still, at heart, a romantic about ideas of faith and religion.

Can you talk about the scene where Soonja, the grandmother played by Youn Yuh-jung, is looking over the family as they sleep?
There’s a very strong personal reason why the grandmother isn’t on the floor with them. My grandmother, her life never really recovered from that moment after the stroke. The rest of her days, she was just descending into oblivion, which is really depressing to talk about. At the same time, I’ve always felt that she was somehow watching over us and taking care of us in that space. There was a very definite reason for the way that that whole scene was set up, and the ambiguity of whether or not she’s alive or dead is very much intentional. I feel like that allows people to enter, maybe, a space that I find myself in with her.

What space is that? 
She still haunts me in a way. I still feel her love. It’s weird. There have been a number of times that I’ve even seen her in my dreams at very important transitions in my life. She’s always quiet. My mom has always known this, and my mom was always wanting to dream about my grandma. I guess it’s the same with anyone who loves someone who has passed. You still feel their presence.

I know you’ve discussed how Minari isn’t weighing in on the American Dream in an ideological way, but the ending does strike me as quite optimistic. What note did you want to end on?
I’ve wondered if people who really believe in the American Dream find the ending to be quite abrupt and unsatisfying. I’m kind of an agnostic when it comes to the American Dream. I don’t deny that I’ve benefited from the idea of it, at least. I remember when I finished the script, I thought, I wrote a film that has a nice Hollywood ending, and so this was, for me, quite an optimistic ending. Frankly, I thought I was ripping off Voyage to Italy, which ends with this couple coming together, and as soon as they come together you cut to black, really. They reconcile and then the movie’s over. You’re just left with that image of that reconciliation and that’s it, that’s all that matters.

So how did you want the ending to read?
I wanted to be pretty spare with it. I wanted people to feel like there has been a change that’s been made in Jacob, that there’s clearly something different about him. The scene where he’s walking with the douser and he puts the stone down and there’s an important gesture in that, where Monica is the one who tells him to do it, to put it down, and he first looks to her in a way before he does it. It’s a very subtle sort of detail, but I just wanted people to feel it. I didn’t want that to draw attention to itself.

Then the ending, where they’re gathering minari, it was also intentional that it’s the father and son who are gathering together, that their stories get wrapped up in that ending. I don’t want anyone to intellectualize any of this, but there’s a great essay that I love by Ursula LeGuin called The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction. She talks about how much of human history is told through this story of either the spear or the bag, the idea of the spear being the driver of human history, that that story was always very interesting to tell and it’s a story about conquest, about hunting. It’s a very masculine story. That story has always been told around the fire because it’s a lot more interesting than the story of the bag — the bag is something that always gathers, something that people who are holding society together in a very sacrificial, loving way use. That story isn’t really told, because it’s not as interesting, but she offers the question, “What if that is really what is keeping our civilization together? What if that really is the story?” That resonated with me a lot. This film has a lot to do with the idea of masculinity and femininity, and the classic idea of “What does it mean to be a man?” I wanted that image of two men, basically, putting away the spear and gathering. That’s something that I needed for my own life, because I felt like I was one who was always trying to have the spear.

What was going on with you then?
I wrote this at a time when I was about to move to Korea and I felt like, This is a sacrifice that I am making. I have so much that I want to do and I’ve got to do this thing to try to create a stable life, provide for my family, and not be a burden on them in pursuit of my dream. That ending kind of came out of that, this desire to be a gatherer for my family.

Did moving to Korea to teach feel like relinquishing the spear, so to speak? 
Yeah. This is also ironic, because of what’s happening now to my work and my career, but as a filmmaker, you start to want to make a name for yourself, but I was realizing, “I’ll have this quiet life of anonymity and teach and just be the best husband and father that I can be.” I wanted to embrace that and see that as a good thing. I see that in my grandma now. I see what she did as being something completely heroic.

Did you ever feel like your parents when you were making the film and the conditions were hard? Your parents were making something, and you were too. Was there a parallel for you there?
A weird thing happened. We were filming on our practical farm location. There’s a location that we used for the actual farm. That farm was started by Hmong immigrants. They also had a grandmother who was living in a trailer home. It felt like a parallel to how I had grown up. They showed me this giant pile of rocks there that the dad had made to make the soil farmable. They told me that he basically did that all by hand. He picked up all these rocks and stacked them up. Honestly, that moment just made me think that making this film is a lot easier than that life. As much as I was trying to relate to my dad in the struggle and in the desire to chase a dream, what they went through feels incomparable somehow.

I know that you and Steven Yeun spent a lot of time at the Airbnb where Youn Yuh-jung and Han Yeri were living. How did that space function for you?
That place was therapeutic. This was my first time making a film of this budget range, to be honest. Everything I’d done was more art house and lower budget. Sometimes I would hear people saying, “Isaac’s a first-time filmmaker.” I felt like I was trying to prove myself many times on set, and then I’m trying to hold together this production and hold my own emotions in check and just do a good job. I always felt very controlled and measured, which is just a natural tendency that I have. When I would go to the Airbnb, that was the place where I could just be myself. All the people in that house believed in me 100 percent. We could talk about anything. I felt a lot of love and support there and that’s why I went there a lot.

There is something of an immigrant narrative there, of having to prove yourself.
I think that too. The budget level is a reflection of the risk. We were trying to prove ourselves with fewer resources, just like immigrants have in the past. Again, that is always a slippery slope to say that, but, at least, I think we’ve learned some lessons from the ways that our parents did it, that we learned how to put our heads down and not let that define us and just do the work.

Is it fair to say that there wasn’t much of a margin for error? 
Yeah, definitely. There was no possibility of redoing a scene if we messed it up, because we just don’t have the time. Youn Yuh-jung saved our ass a lot. One thing to know about YJ is that most of the time you’re not going to have to do more than two takes, because she gets it right. She has a belief in always nailing the first take, and that’s true. Her first take is always impeccable. She always jokes that if I nail it on my first take, then I can go home earlier. There was no way we could have done this without her ability to do that.

Has your daughter watched the film? What did she think of it? 
Yeah, she watched it when I showed my dad and my mom. That was a year and a half ago. She thinks Alan is hilarious. Honestly, she was at the snack table eating lots of salami for most of that screening.

Minari’s Lee Isaac Chung on Oscar Nods and Existential Angst