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A director returns to the home he longed to leave
In an undated photo taken remotely, the director Lee Isaac Chung, Jan. 22, 2021. With “Minari,” Chung tells a semi-autobiographical tale of growing up Korean-American in the heartland. Justin J. Wee/The New York Times.

by Robert Ito

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- In 2018, about a decade after his first feature, the Rwandan drama “Munyurangabo,” opened to rave reviews at Cannes, Lee Isaac Chung was this close to ditching the capricious life of an indie filmmaker for the presumably more comfortable life of a film professor. “I was hitting 40, and I realized I needed to just move on in life and do something practical,” he said.

Chung had already taken a position teaching screenwriting at the University of Utah’s South Korean campus in Incheon, but he felt he had one last screenplay in him. “I tried to put everything I could into that script,” he said.

That supposedly final hurrah became “Minari,” a coming-of-age story inspired by Chung’s experiences growing up the son of Korean American immigrants in rural Arkansas in the 1980s. In the film, Steven Yeun (“The Walking Dead”) and South Korean actress Yeri Han play an immigrant couple who, like Chung’s own parents, moved to Arkansas to pursue the husband’s dream of running a vegetable farm; irrigation issues, marital strife and Grandma, newly arrived from South Korea, soon follow.

After making movies in Rwanda, North Carolina and New York City, Chung may have achieved his biggest success to date by returning to the single-wide mobile home of his youth (14 feet across in the movie). “We used to dream about the double-wide,” he said.

Since the film’s premiere at Sundance last year, where it won the grand jury and audience prizes for best U.S. drama, “Minari” has generated glowing reviews and Oscars buzz. As for Chung, he is writing two more feature scripts.

Recently, Chung, now 42, spoke by video from his home in South Pasadena, California, about his Arkansas childhood, his improbable route to film school and how the semi-autobiographical “Minari” came to be.

Chung was born in Denver and moved to Arkansas at age 2. His hometown, Lincoln, was just as small in real life as it appears in his movie. There were no traffic lights, “a couple places you could eat burgers,” and a single K-12 school cater-corner from the mayor’s house. “She was an older lady, and she would sit on the porch and just watch all of us,” he said. For fun, teenagers drove 30 miles to Fayetteville to hang out at the Walmart parking lot. “Lincoln was a sleepy town,” he admitted.

He was a good student who enjoyed writing but realized he was a “terrible writer” when he got into Yale, where he found himself eclipsed by other students who had gone to private schools and grown up on the coasts. “I always felt like I got into that school because they were meeting some Arkansas quota,” he said.

As a pre-med student during his senior year, Chung enrolled in a film class to fulfill an arts requirement. His instructor was award-winning director Michael Roemer (“Nothing But a Man,” 1964), who made his students produce an experimental video every week.

He was hooked, but he also felt out of his element again. “I remember my roommate was watching ‘Seven Samurai,’ and I just couldn’t fathom why anybody would watch it,” he said. But soon enough, he found himself entranced by the films of Wong Kar-wai, Terrence Malick and yes, Akira Kurosawa, the director of “Seven Samurai.”

“I likened it to a conversion experience,” he said.

At film school at the University of Utah, Chung continued to watch several movies a day. “I felt like I was a monk there, really,” he said. Once again, he found himself playing catch-up: “I’ve generally felt like a late bloomer in all of this.”

After film school, he accompanied his wife, Valerie, a therapist, to Rwanda, where she had been doing volunteer work with the Christian organization Youth With a Mission. “When we got married, she asked me to promise to go back with her to Rwanda,” he said. Looking for something to do, he created a filmmaking class for 15 local students. As its final project, his class served as the crew on “Munyurangabo,” a feature about an unlikely friendship between two teenage boys: one Hutu, one Tutsi.

Success at Cannes and the subsequent hoopla (Roger Ebert called the film “a masterpiece”) came as a shock for the first-time feature filmmaker. “I was 29, 30 years old at the time,” Chung said. “So there was a lot that I thought was going to happen in my own career after that.”

“But that didn’t really pan out,” he added.

Chung went on to direct two more features, “Lucky Life” (2010) and “Abigail Harm” (2013); they were both, according to the director, largely improvisational affairs. “I was just making movies to make movies,” he said. “I was so full of anxiety about becoming a filmmaker that I kind of lost the idea of why I was doing it.”

Chung vowed he would never make another film without a fully fleshed-out script, then set about writing one.

“Minari” began filming in 2019 with Oklahoma standing in for Arkansas. Chung, alongside casting director Julia Kim, assembled a cast that included veterans like film and TV actress Yuh-jung Youn, 73, whom Chung had met while teaching in Incheon, and newcomers like Alan S. Kim, now 8. The five-week shoot took place in the middle of a hot and humid Oklahoma summer, with much of the action set in the family trailer. “There was around 30 people in that small unit,” Youn recalled. “The A/C broke down the first day.”

For Yeun, a Korean American who has made movies with Korean filmmakers Bong Joon Ho (“Okja”) and Lee Chang-dong (“Burning”), the film was the first time he had worked with a Korean American director.

“I think there was so much shorthand, and so much understanding,” Yeun remembered. “It was really great, because Isaac didn’t come with a lot of baggage that needed to be unpacked about who we are as Korean Americans. It was already infused in our understanding, so we could just meet on the human level, at the father place, or the husband place, or just as a man.”

Youn, who plays the irascible grandmother, was similarly impressed with Chung. “He’s my second son’s age, so he’s like a son,” she said. “The first day on set is always terrible, but he was very calm. I’m not like him: I get excited, I get emotional, I lose my control sometimes. But not him.”

The film nods at several aspects of Korean American life rarely seen in contemporary films, such as the fraught nature of Korean churches in the United States (“Our church in Arkansas, it’s so small, and yet it’s still split,” Chung said) and the way many immigrants hold onto a vision of their homeland years after their homeland has moved on. “Inside that trailer is a protected space of 1970s Korea, a Korea of the time that the parents have left,” he said. “The Korea of their memories, basically.”

On Sunday, “Minari” is up for a Golden Globe for best foreign-language film, a nomination that made it ineligible for either of the ceremony’s two best-picture awards. The classification drew accusations of racism and favoritism — “Inglourious Basterds,” for example, did not meet the 50% English-language requirement either, and yet was nominated for a best-picture prize — and calls for changes to the rules. (It should be noted that the film’s distributor, A24, submitted “Minari” in the foreign-language category.)

“Maybe the positive side of all of this is that we’ve made a film that challenges some of those existing categories, and adds to the idea that an American film might look and sound very differently from what we’re used to,” Chung said.

Even so, the controversy has put Chung in a tough spot. “It’s hard to say, ‘I demand a seat at a table for best picture,’” he said.

And while the film has secured a raft of other awards and nominations from festivals and critics’ groups, Chung was initially very concerned about two audience members in particular. “Honestly, I was so scared about how I would offend my parents,” he said.

They, in turn, are concerned about how Korean audiences will view the film and its story. “My parents worry that a lot of Koreans in the home country will watch this and think, ‘Man, this was a stupid family,’” he said. “They went to America and really suffered. Not knowing that suffering was really part of that identity of being a Korean American.”

Chung is now writing an adaptation of the body-swapping anime blockbuster “Your Name,” which broke box-office records when it premiered in Japan in 2016, as well as a romantic comedy set partly in Utah.

So is Chung back in the filmmaking business, after nearly ditching it three years ago? “Yeah, it appears that way,” he said, laughing. “But I’m at peace with whatever happens, because the way this all unfolded was so unexpected. I’m taking it slow.”

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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