'Minari's' Lee Isaac Chung Talks Downside of the American Dream and Golden Globes Controversy

Director Lee Isaac Chung (right) discusses a scene with Will Patton and Yeun. Patton plays a devout Christian whom Yeun hires as a farmhand.
Courtesy of A24

Director Lee Isaac Chung (right) discusses a scene with Will Patton and Yeun. Patton plays a devout Christian whom Yeun hires as a farmhand.

The writer-director revisits his familial inspirations like 'Ben Hur' and making the Korean-American coming of age film "on my terms and to not leave anything behind."

Minari, which opens today, is the most autobiographical film of this award season — a distinction that only highlights how painstakingly, yet disarmingly, the multigenerational drama was made. Writer-director Lee Isaac Chung mined his unusual Korean-American childhood in rural Arkansas, where his father took his family for a chance at a homesteading dream, to tell an intimate yet visually sweeping tale about an immigrant couple, Jacob and Monica (played by Steven Yeun, Chung's cousin-by-marriage, and Yeri Han), with two young children (newcomers Noel Cho and Alan Kim) whose aspirations will make or break their fragile marriage. Things get further complicated when Monica's elderly mother Soonja (Korean cinema icon Yuh-jung Youn, making her American acting debut), moves into the family's trailer, forging a sweet but conflict-filled relationship with her grandson.

In a wide-ranging conversation, Chung spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about the many ways he made sure "to not leave anything behind" in the making of Minari (his fifth feature), the Golden Globes' snubbing of his actors and the personal experiences that he wanted to bring to his critique of the American Dream.  

There’s such a dominant cultural narrative about Asian Americans as the model minority or pursuers of the American Dream. And so much of Minari is about how that dream isn't attainable for everyone. The film even questions whether immigration to the U.S. had made the characters' lives worse in some ways. Why was that an important counter-narrative for you to build a movie around?

I tried to go to a very personal level with it. My dad told me that he came to the U.S. because of watching Hollywood movies. So the American Dream for him was based on what you see in films. And I felt like I was also chasing this ephemeral dream of going into the movies. There is something so unstable about that, and you wonder what you’re putting your family through as a filmmaker when you are pursuing something, and they have to bear a lot of the costs of your risk.

So all these things were on my mind as I was working on this story. I didn’t want to just criticize the American Dream or just say that’s false. I was more interested in what it is about us that desires that dream, to the point that we would take such a great risk.

Jacob is really starting from scratch and creating a new identity. Monica as well. There’s a lot that she remembers, the dreams they had of saving each other and having the best for their family. And all these things are coming into direct conflict with the reality in America.

I also wanted to encapsulate my own feelings about being a child during that time and watching my own parents wrestle with that. I remember hearing my mom saying so many times we should never have left Korea. She would see the way that I was growing up and the fact that I was speaking English and not speaking Korean as well, and she would fear the things that we were forgetting. And there's also the fate of my grandma, who came over and ultimately died anonymously because of what my parents were seeking.

I didn’t want to judge any of that. I wanted to really think about why they made those choices.

Do you recall which movies were formative for your father?

East of Eden was a big one for him, although I don’t know how that could cause a person to want to come to America, because it's filled with deep conflict with the land. Giant. Big Country. These are films about the expanse, the potential and possibility of all this land.

Another one was Ben Hur. He just felt like, if the values that are expressed in that film came from this country, that is where he wants to be. After I became a filmmaker, he was always telling me, "Some day you gotta make Ben Hur."

In addition to Asian-American themes, so much of Minari is about the perversion or exploitation of nature. Where did that preoccupation come from?

I was trying to think of the ways in which people try to work the land. What Jacob is setting out to do, to make the land submit to him, is diametrically opposed to the way Soonja is almost listening more to the land.

That is stuff that I just generally think about as a person, and maybe it doesn’t have to do as much with Asian American identity or immigration. But I grew up in Arkansas, in the woods, and I studied ecology in college. It's just something that I have always been interested in. And there is something about indigenous culture that I respond to quite a lot, that mindset that we’re supposed to live in harmony with nature, in balance with nature.

Why did you study ecology in college?

I thought I would go into philosophy and political science. But once I got to college [at Yale University]… I went to a very rural [high] school where maybe 10-15 percent of us went to college. So in college, I was out of my league completely. I was getting very bad grades and I couldn’t keep up.

But all this ecology stuff, I had lived and experienced and breathed it. And I found that I could actually make good grades in those classes. (Laughs.) So the bottom-line answer was my GPA.

I think the trailer sets up a particular expectation for the movie: There's these big, sun-dappled landscapes and longing music and Steven Yeun’s beautiful, sad face. So I was surprised by how funny Minari was. Was it hard for you to go into that comic mode, or is that something that comes naturally to you?

I have always loved comedies. I want to do that more and more. This was a film I wanted to do on my terms and to not leave anything behind, because I wasn’t sure if I’d ever get to make a film again. So I thought, I gotta do this the way I want, and that meant throwing in all the things that I find funny.

It helps make the film fun to make as well. You want to live in a world that's full of life and joy. I’ve worked on other films in the past where they're mired in a darker and more somber mood, and I just didn’t want to do that. Honestly, the older I get, the more I see a profound wisdom in comedy. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen Sullivan’s Travels?

I have.

I quite like that film. I rewatched it recently, and I think there is something about what it’s trying to say about the balance of joy and also the reality of suffering, that we need both.

This is maybe a weird question, but at any point in the writing process did you think about making Jacob more sexist or controlling? He’s a man of a certain generation, and I found his tenderness really moving, but in the back of my mind, I was like, would this guy be this nice?

(Laughs.) That’s a great question, because it is something I thought about. And I think a lot of us who grew up around … it was a different era. But I didn’t want the film to become just about that. It’s enough that what he's doing is bringing his family to this place without consulting Monica at all. That's already a form of violence.

I didn’t want to make him irredeemable. But I did think about that, because that’s a reality. And, yeah, I have heard Korean-immigrant women of that generation saying, "What a wonderful husband he is. Why are they talking about divorce?" (Laughs.)

Oh my God.

Yeah.

It was remarkable to watch Minari and recognize specific objects from my own childhood. I noticed your production designer, Yong Ok Lee, is Korean-American. Was hiring a Korean-American production designer for this film important?

It was definitely important to get the details right. Yong Ok actually came to the U.S. in her 20s, so she didn’t grow up in the U.S. during that time. We were talking to other [candidates] who were getting the [Korean] details right, but Yong Ok got right the American details. She got right the southern Arkansas stuff in a way that nobody else was getting right. I was shocked by that. So that’s why I went with her — it wasn’t because of the Korean stuff, but the Arkansas stuff.

What she pulled together in four weeks of preparation was just remarkable, especially her haggling with people in Oklahoma to get random things to rig up in our trailer home. She is one of my favorite people who I’ve ever worked with. She is an artist, is all I can say.

You have this Korean/Korean-American cast, and then on top of that you have this requirement for the actors to be bilingual. What was that casting process like?

I feel very fortunate for how quickly it went. Will [Patton, who plays Jacob's friend and laborer] was the first one involved. And then Steven. And once Steven was in place, I was living in Korea at the time and I was able to meet Yuh-jung Youn and Yeri Han through a mutual friend.

Once we got to the U.S., the real trick was finding kids who are bilingual in Korean and English, as you said. Julia Kim, our casting director, was incredible in finding that. She knew that we had to find kids who had never acted before, essentially. So she sent out flyers and visited hagwons [after-school academies]. Like, she would stand in front of hagwons and give flyers to kids who were coming out. And we found them in less than six weeks.

I was really impressed by the literary detail in the Korean dialogue. Like, the first time that Soonja refers to her grandson, she calls him "저놈" (which roughly translates within the scene's context to "that boy," a mildly coarse term of endearment). Did you write the Korean dialogue, or was it translated?

No, I had someone helping out, Stefanie Hong. She wasn’t originally supposed to be there; she was visiting Y.J. on set. She helped a lot on those translations to get the Korean just right. She also translated the rain song that Emile Mosseri wrote. If you listen to the lyrics, they are beautiful and so poetic.

So yeah, I worked a lot with her, and the actors did a lot to shape the lines into the ways in which they would deliver them. Yuh-jung Youn's Korean on a literary level is really good. [Korean literature] was her specialty in college. A lot of our discussion on set was how to get the Korean dialogue right.

I have to ask you the obligatory question of how you feel about the Golden Globes situation, where the movie got a nomination [for best foreign-language film] but none of the actors did.

Honestly, when I am seeing these nominations, it’s the acting ones that I’m really paying attention to, because I just feel so invested in the work that they did. And I understand the pain and frustration that people felt about the best foreign-language film thing.

All I can say is, yeah, I wish they could’ve been nominated. I’m not going to sit here and judge [the Hollywood Foreign Press Association] for not nominating them. But in my mind they are the greatest actors working, and they did the best job. So obviously I’m going to be a little disappointed if they are not getting recognized.

Still, Yuh-jung Youn has received accolades from critics associations, like the National Board of Review. Are you surprised that she has become one of the movie's breakout stars?

Okay, so when we were making the film and I was watching her perform, I thought, this is incredible. I didn’t know if she’d get any recognition for it. I have a cynical part of me that thought, no one’s gonna care and only I will know this is amazing. (Laughs.) So in a way I am not surprised, because I was there on set and seeing what she was doing.

Youn lived in the U.S. for a decade. Was that sort of role, of an outsider who comes into a new place and is told she's not allowed to be the way that she is, a thing that you had to explain to her, or was that something that she was already quite familiar with?

I think she was quite familiar with it. I never felt like I had to explain who this person was to her. And honestly, what was fascinating to me was that she talked a lot about her own grandmother while thinking about what she wanted this person to be like. So she went very personal with it. I love that she found echoes of her grandma in the script.

Were there a lot of things about your grandmother as well in the character, or was it more her interpretation of that character?

I asked her to please not worry about imitating my grandmother, that she shouldn’t have to ask me, did your grandmother do this or that. I told her, I’m more interested in how you create this character through your craft and your art. I felt like she appreciated that. As soon as I said it, we never broached the topic of my grandma after that.

But after making the film, my mom watched it and we talked about how Yuh-jung Youn was able to capture the spirit of my grandma somehow. My mom couldn’t stop dreaming about her mom, my grandma. But she would see Yuh-jung Youn as her mom now. That was fascinating. And it means so much because I see my grandmother a lot in my dreams, and my mom has always longed for that. She has always been jealous of that.

She was jealous of your dreams about your grandmother?

Yeah. "I wish I could see her" is what my mom would always say, because she never sees her mother in her dreams. And after the film, she finally saw her. My mom was so happy, and I knew what it meant to her because she had been wanting that for years. (Tears up.) Anyway, yeah.

Grandmothers.

Grandmothers, yeah. They really hit at something.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.