It is not uncommon for artists to get autobiography out of the system in their debut. Lee Isaac Chung has waited just a little. It is 14 years since the Korean-American filmmaker, a graduate of Yale, arrived at the Cannes film festival with Munyurangabo. Set in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide, the picture demonstrated a daunting capacity to reach beyond his upbringing.
With Minari, he has come home. Chung was born in Denver before moving with his family to a small farm in rural Arkansas. The director’s new film focuses on a young Korean-American – his dad a dreamer, his grandmother a determined eccentric – moving from California to, well, a small farm in rural Arkansas. If it is possible for a sensation to grow gently then, since winning the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in early 2020, Minari has done just that. The film recently scored six Oscar nominations including one for best picture. Veteran Youn Yuh-jung is favourite to win for her turn as the awkward granny.
We meet at the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival – where Minari eventually grabbed the audience prize – and begin by addressing the autobiographical elements.
“Yeah, I’m almost embarrassed to talk about it, because so much of it does draw from real life,” he says. “And where I can get in trouble with that is that I’ve taken the characters and fictionalised them. So I worry that audiences around the world are going to think that these are exactly my parents and this is exactly my grandmother. A lot of the experiences are the same, though. We turned up in the middle of nowhere after our father told us he was going to buy this trailer home.”
Whatever about the precise autobiographical detail, this gentle, humanistic film seems to reflect its creator's personality nicely. A polite, chatty fellow with a taste for self-deferential humour, Chung is as much a walking manifestation of his work as the gruff, belligerent John Ford was of his (without the Irish-American's self-mythologising, obviously). When I ask how his family reacted to finding versions of themselves on screen, he gives a warm chuckle.
“Well, I pre-empted all of that by just not telling anyone what I was doing,” he says. “I was so scared of their thoughts and reactions. And to me, this was so personal. I just felt a deep need to tell this story and to appreciate my family and to express the closeness that I have with them – to express the resilience I see in them. So I didn’t want to ruin it by bringing them into the process and then doubting what I was writing.”
The film arrives to stream here at a fraught time for Asian communities in the United States. In mid-March, eight people – six of whom were Asian – were murdered in the Atlanta spa shootings. More insidious forms of everyday racism have always hung around. Minari focuses on the positive. We, perhaps unfairly, expect such stories to deal with bigotry, but that is barely an issue in Chung’s rural drama of the 1980s. Dad and mom work sexing chickens. A local eccentric introduces them to water dousing. Grandma plants the dropwort variation that gives the film its name.
“I definitely did experience racism growing up,” he says. “It’s just something we all deal with – even if we don’t grow up in the south. A lot of Asian-Americans will face that in the cities. There are a lot of hate crimes going on right now against Asians. I had a strange childhood in that I grew up in a town that largely embraced me.”
He corrects slightly.
"I don't mean that that's strange. I mean that I then had a big culture shock when I moved to the east coast. I was in a prestigious school. I felt like a fish out of water. I was feeling more kinship to farmers and people in middle America that I had left behind. I have my toe in different worlds. I feel that we just miss each other. It happens on all sides. We all need to see each other more as human beings. My experience growing up was that I had wonderful connections."
A family story
Among the beauties of Minari is how it offers variations on a familiar theme. The most common of all immigrant stories is that of the second generation losing connection with the homeland and embracing the new nation. You get it in East is East. You get it in The Godfather. You see it in Irish-American families. In keeping with its overarching aesthetic, Minari offers gentler versions of that division. The little boy at the film’s heart is more at home with the English language than his parents. His grandmother arrives to introduce some older traditions. There is something of that old myth concerning “The American Dream” in here.
“Yeah, I definitely think at the core of the film it’s a family story,” he says. “What interests me about the American Dream – and about assimilation – is the way in which it can create barriers within a family. We see different elements of race and isolation and all these things happening in the family of Minari. My deepest interest with that was simply about the relationship that these people have with one another. Immigration is just a major stress on any family, on any marriage. It’s a stress between parents and children.”
Some films in the current awards season have profited from lockdown. Minari looked, however, like a probable contender since its win at Sundance. Chung's producer, Christina Oh – from Brad Pitt's Plan B – tells me the campaign has been an endless snake of screens. "We wish we could be out there shaking hands," she says. Still, none of that will have quenched the Chung family's excitement. I assume they liked the film when they finally saw it.
“I showed them during Thanksgiving,” the director remembers. “That’s when I really came clean that I made a very autobiographical film. My parents watched it and they were pleasantly moved. They loved it. I didn’t expect that. I didn’t know what to expect.”
Minari is available to stream from April 2nd