‘Minari’ Director Isaac Chung on How Growing Up in Church Shaped His Story

‘Minari’ Director Isaac Chung on How Growing Up in Church Shaped His Story February 27, 2021

Releasing wide this week from A21, the acclaimed Korean-language film ‘Minari’ has received many accolades and nominations, including “Best Picture” from the Critic’s Choice Awards and numerous acting nods for Stephen Yeun and Youn Yuh-jung from the Golden Globes and the Screen Actor’s Guild. In addition to its realistic portrayal of a Korean family adjusting to country life in Arkansas, ‘Minari’ also has a strong religious element, a carryover from writer-director Lee Isaac Chung’s own journey.

Stephen Yeon, Han Ye-ri, Youn Yuh-jung, and Alan S. Kim star in ‘Minari.’ Image courtesy of A21.

In this exclusive interview, Chung relates how central faith was to his upbringing, why leaving it in the film added to its authenticity, and how his real-life grandmother inspired the feisty character Soon-ja (Yuh-jung).

 

You’ve having a really good week. Because I’ve been reading you know about all the nominations, all the accolades, the movie is getting well deserved. How does that feel?

It feels tremendous, it feels slightly unreal. It’s been a crazy year, so this is just another facet to that. I’m just so thrilled that, especially the actors that they’re getting noticed. All these different things that when you’re working on set, you, you just hope you’re setting up a good story, and you’re setting up actors for their best performances. And when you start seeing recognition for that, it just feels tremendous.

 

MINARI_00190
Actors Steven Yeun and Will Patton on set
Director Lee Isaac Chung
Credit: Joe Rushmore/A24

Now, this is slightly autobiographical. It’s inspired by your life, such as the parents working in chicken hatcheries. Did you also have the health issues that that boy does?

A lot of the things that you see in the film do start off from memories of things that actually happened. I mean, for instance, the heart thing, that’s kind of very exaggerated and dramatized for the sake of the story. And that’s where it’s been hard for me to really describe what’s authentic or what’s actual, based on real life and what’s fictionalized. Because so much of it is still personal and authentic to the way I see the world and who I am, and all those things. But memories are really the fabric of it. That’s the basis of it.

 

There’s quite a bit of religious life in this and faith influence in it. Was that part of your journey, too?

Certainly. I grew up in the church, grew up going to church, and my parents dropped me off at that First Baptist Church of Lincoln, Arkansas, so that we could learn English and they could go and work in the chicken hatcheries, every Sunday. So, we kind of grew up within the church and the community and was such a big part of the community in Lincoln, Arkansas. And then as I got older, the Koreans in the community also started a Korean church and it was a tiny, very small church, but the Koreans who were there as chicken sexers, or college students, kind of banded together and started this church. I was going to church two days a week because the Koreans for some reason they had to meet on Saturday because all the chicken sexers would work on Sundays. So that’s kind of how I grew up. And you know, it’s stuck with me, it’s something that I am still. You know, I see things through that perspective. So, naturally, if I’m going to wrestle with a story, I’m going to wrestle with it on those terms as well. And I didn’t want this to be like a story that is just preaching the Christian faith or trying to preach to the choir in a way but it’s something I’m just trying to be very personal with it and talk about my own faith and the ways in which I wrestled with faith and, you know, at least take faith seriously, through the work. That makes sense.

 

I think there’s an authenticity with that. You’re probably near my age, but 20 years ago, there are people who are so nervous about portraying faith that they would strip a story of it, even it called for it. And the average person in this country or faith plays a lot in the development of people. So, when you leave it in, I always encourage that, because it feels authentic. It’s not that we’re pushing it agenda. But to not ignore it. You know, it’s a real part of people’s lives.

Yeah, I think you’re right. We often ignore it. But I think the more that we explore it in a healthy way, maybe there would be less of this conflict about it as well in this country.

 

You have a very realistic portrayal of the grandmother and the story. And she does a phenomenal job where she’s feisty, and then hold a sudden she has this issue with her, you want to talk about that transformation and what that does to the family.

kind of knew that would be where the story heads to, where you see this family somehow moving in one direction and where the grandmother ends up. Things go poorly for her. It comes out of a very personal place. That comes from memory of what my grandmother went through, as I reflect back and her experience of coming to this place. She came to America to take care of us, essentially. My parents were busy at work. And my sister and I were on our own. So, we needed her to be there for us. And she largely had an anonymous life here in the US. But I look back and, and she’s a real hero.  I wanted to capture that feeling within the film of someone who comes in and who completely overthrows the way that this family is operating. And to do it in a way that introduces maybe a new type of wisdom to the family of maybe the way that they need to be and the way they need to love each other and the way that they also need to hold in and remember traditions. So, she embodies quite a lot. And you know, Yuh-jung, her performance of her is just perfect. Working with her was just such a treat and the way that she did that, and she did it with such grace and professionalism, it was just astounding. Watching her every day on set, that would keep me going. I really appreciate it that it stood out to you.

 

‘Minari,’ written and directed by Lee Isaac Chung and starring Stephen Yeon, Han Ye-ri, Youn Yuh-jung, and Alan S. Kim, is now in wide release theatrically.

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