When the movie Minari won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign-Language Film Feb. 28, director Lee Isaac Chung (pictured above with the hat) was joined on video by his 7-year-old daughter, who in about three seconds became one of the broadcast’s biggest stars.
“I prayed! I prayed!” she shouted, hugging Chung with all her might.
The moment seemed appropriate for an award dedicated to Minari, a semi-autobiographical work that chronicles an immigrant Korean family’s attempt to start a farm in rural Arkansas: Jacob, the father, is determined to make it work. His wife, Monica, is leery of the whole experiment, but she agrees to try … as long as she can bring her own mother from Korea to help with the kids. The movie is all about family and dreams and struggle—and it’s a little bit about faith, too.
I had a chance to talk with Chung this week about the win, his movie and the subtle sense of spirituality that permeates this story. (This interview has been edited lightly for readability.)
Paul Asay: First off, congratulations on the Golden Globe victory. Minari might’ve been my favorite movie this year, and I would’ve loved to have seen it up in some other categories [the rules of the Golden Globes stipulate that a film in the best foreign language category can’t compete for best picture], but I guess that’s the way it goes, right?
Lee Isaac Chung: Yeah, I felt like that moment I was able to share with my daughter, that ended up redeeming everything in some way, transcending the idea of awards. I felt like that was something for us as a family that was special.
Asay: I know the movie is partly autobiographical. How did this project develop?
Chung: It began in 2018. I wasn’t sure if I would be able to continue making films, and I had taken on this full-time teaching job in Korea. And it wasn’t slated to start until August. This was in February. So I had a few months to actually sit down and write a script, and I thought, I want to try doing that, and this might be the last thing I can write. And I went on this whole epic journey, trying to figure out what I should do, and just came to feeling as though doing a very personal story was the right thing. I was looking back to the age I was back then—what my daughter is now—and thinking about my dad. When he was 40, he moved us to a farm in Arkansas. And so that timing of everything made it feel right for me to dig into that time in my life, and to write down a bunch of memories, and shape a story out of that.
Asay: It must’ve been a little scary, putting down all of these memories and putting them up for everyone to see.
Chung: Terrifying. A lot of moments of terror with it. And in ways I didn’t expect. I was most afraid of my parents’ response, that was a huge thing, and my sister’s response. And then day by day, when I was on set, I would film scenes, and I would have to constantly ask my friend, “Is this interesting to anybody? This comes from my life. Are people just going to think that he’s a nut?”So I had those moments. I was just surrounded by so many good people who were encouraging me along the way, and that helped a great deal.
Asay: I love the title Minari [which refers to a hardy plant that grows in Asia], which is symbolic for a lot of different things in the movie. But it seems like the idea suggested by Minari—that ability to grow anywhere and thrive—fits the grandmother character the best, who in some ways you’d think would have the hardest time adapting to not just a new environment, but a whole new country. Can you talk about her a bit?
Chung: I love the way that Youn Yuh-jung plays her and describes her. She says that this woman has kind of gone past being a parent, and no longer carries the stress of being a parent, and she’s trying to do things right. She doesn’t care about society anymore. She’s older, and she just doesn’t care. And all she’s bringing from Korea is love. And to me, that was really the key to minari, that plant. She’s bringing this seed over from Korea. And to me, that was more symbolic of that feeling and that emotion of something very inexpressible. That love, that sacrifice and just pure acceptance. And that’s what she brings to this family, and that’s what ultimately sustains them and delivers them. That was all very important for this character and the title of the film.
Asay: One of the things that struck me about the movie was how religious it felt, but understatedly so. The family was grounded in a certain sort of faith, but a very different faith than Paul, the farmhand who comes across as a more wildly charismatic believer. Can you speak to the faith elements of the film?
Chung: I guess I could just say they’re very personal elements for me. I grew up in the church. I grew up in many churches, actually, because my parents dropped me off at the first Baptist Church in Lincoln (Arkansas) to learn English and to, like, find community. And then they started a Korean church, I think it was like a Methodist church, and they would meet on Saturdays, because on Sundays, all the Koreans would have to go to work and work these factory jobs and stuff. So I was going to church every day of the weekend. I’ve encountered and been a part of different churches growing up, and I still feel that that’s a very prominent part of my life.
And so when I was telling this story, it was very personal to me. That’s why those elements are in there. But I didn’t want to set out to make a Christian movie, if that makes sense, like in the sense that I’m preaching to the choir, or just trying to preach the Gospel. I didn’t want this film to be that. I just wanted this film to capture a certain perspective and experience that I have of wrestling with God. The name of the main character is Jacob, and he’s wrestling with God in this film. So what you see play out—I ask for Christians to have some grace with me, because knowing the ways that I believe it might be unorthodox or people question me about how I portray different characters—it’s honestly just me working things out on a very personal level.
Asay: It felt pretty contextual, really. There’s a scene in the movie where the family goes to church and encounters a bunch of people who seem curious and open, but don’t quite know what to say or do. It’s such an awkward scene, but it shows these parishioners in a pretty decent light. They don’t know what to say, but you get the sense they want to do the right thing.
Chung: I honestly think most people here, we should be showing them in a better light. And I think that’s something that hasn’t been happening. The ways in which Christians are often portrayed, it can be very unfair and inhuman. And I think the same has happened with immigrants and Asians. The same has happened with farmers in the South. So I was hoping with this film to get down to a more human level, and to show the complexity of who we are as people. That it’s not as simple as just saying, “Well this person is Christian, they’re going to act this and this way.” I feel like we’ve had enough of that. We kind of need to get down to the level of [understanding that] we’re all human beings. We can surprise each other if we have the chance.
Asay: One of the things that strikes me about this movie is that it’s so specific, and yet there’s a certain universality to the story, too. What sorts of reactions have you gotten from people?
Chung: I’ve been surprised. I have friends reaching out to me from Arkansas who are telling me about their farms and how their farms collapsed when they were kids, and the difficulties they had going on, while we were at school and pretending that everything was OK. And then I’ve had immigrants from various countries telling me that this really reflects their experience. And then just people trying to deal with COVID, and being in a pandemic, and talking about how they’re starting a garden, and they’re trying to take care of their parents and their kids at the same time, and how this film speaks to them.
I just feel like, when it comes to that idea of the particular and the universal—yeah, I’m personally just touched that we are very similar. We are very human. And the ideas of sacrifice, of moving to a new place, of trying to do what’s best for the family.
That’s not an Asian-American story. It is, but what I mean is, it’s not just an Asian-American story. It’s a human story, and that’s what all of us are really hoping for. So my hope for this film was that it does feel like a family that is welcoming everybody to the table, welcoming everybody to say, You are in this journey with us, you are suffering and struggling in the same ways that we are, you’re also hoping and dreaming in the same ways that we are. And if people see it in that way, then I continue to be blessed by that.