‘Minari’ writer/director Lee Isaac Chung and cast on this red-hot Oscar contender

The elegiac family drama “Minari” captivated critics and audiences at the Sundance Film Festival this past January, winning not only the Grand Jury Prize for drama, but also the Audience Award. A24 opens this red-hot Oscar contender in limited release on December 11. Inspired by the hardscrabble childhood of writer/director Lee Isaac Chung, “Minari” revolves around the South Korean couple Jacob (Steven Yeun) and Monica (Yeri Han) who had left their country in the early 1970s for a better life in California. But after several years, they are still working as a chicken sexers.

So, Jacob uproots the family, which also consists of a pre-teenage girl (Noel Cho) and the uber-adorable little boy named David (Alan Kim) who suffers from a heart murmur and moves to them a ramshackle trailer on a five-acre farm in the Ozarks. Jacob hopes to find the American success story he so craves as a farmer, while his more practical wife informs him that this isn’t what he promised her and the family. And family dynamics change when Monica’s mother Soonja (Yuh-Jung Youn), a free spirit with a wicked sense of humor who swears, doesn’t cook, loves watching TV and playing cards. David isn’t thrilled to be sharing a room with his grandmother because she “smells Korean.”

The film is currently at 100% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. And Youn is nominated for a Gotham Independent Film Award for best actress. And the A24 release is gaining traction in the awards derby. Will it follow in the footsteps of Neon’s 2019 South Korean drama “Parasite,” which won four Academy Awards including Best Picture?

Surprisingly, Chung never thought he would make a personal film. His first film, 2007’s award-winning “Munyurangabo” was set in Rwanda. “I started off my career thinking that I wanted to make films that aren’t about my life,” he explained during a recent Zoom Q&A with the cast moderated by Rotten Tomatoes’ critic Jacqueline Coley. But then he became a father. “Something shifted around 2014 around the time my daughter was born,” he noted. “I just wanted to tell a story that encapsulates a lot of things that I grew up with and a lot of things that I was thinking about presently in life as well.”

So, two years ago, Chung started to write down memories “from that time of my life, looking at it from the point of view of age my daughter is. So, looking at what was life back when I was in that range of five to seven years old. And a lot of funny things went in there like my dad taking us to this place in the middle of nowhere, plopping us on this land with a trailer home with no steps and him saying ‘this is your new home.”

Chung realized that was a “wild couple of years for me and maybe this could be shaped into a story.” He didn’t want it to become a memory piece, but to have it work as a narrative. “But it was an interesting process,” said Chung. “It puts you in a vulnerable place. But overall, I felt precious to do this and to have something I can show to my family, both of my parents in which they feel like they were seen and heard. And also, to my daughter, something I can leave behind for her that she can see where we come from.”

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Though Kim couldn’t remember doing auditions, Yeun recalled when he and the young actor first met. “I didn’t get to audition with too many kids,” he recalled. “I think three kids. They’re all wonderful, but Alan came in and we improvised a scene together. As I was improvising the scene playing the dad, he was so in the present.”

Yeun (“Walking Dead,” “Burning”) noted “Minari” is the first project playing a father since he became a father. “I don’t know if I would have been able to approach this in the same truth if I didn’t have it in my own life,” he said “I think it was beyond even my story as a father. What was really cool to connect it to my own father and my father’s generation. I used to view my father as kind of a completely separate thing or idea or time.”

Of all the characters, said Yeun, Jacob “has to hold a specific set of dualities which is both to be seen as the dominant force that is really kind of thinking of himself at times and also showing that he deeply loves his family. That was a really cool thing to go through.” Jacob, he added, is “not only trying to leave a collective kind of system that he’s from in Korea, he’s further trying to leave another when he leaves California. So, he’s deeply searching or himself. I think he doesn’t have the tools to really understand who he is and how he can find who he is. I think for Jacob, his stubbornness is a character trait, it was a validation of his existence.” Jacob may love the family and wants the best for them “but he only knows how to communicate that love through service. He doesn’t not communicate that in any other way so that’s his journey.”

The two young actors spent a lot of time together. “We kind of looked like brothers and sisters and did most things that brothers and sisters would do like fight and fight and fight some more,” said Noel. “And then we would do practically the same-fight and fight and then watch TV some more.” And what was their favorite show they watched together? ‘“Captain Underpants,”’ quipped Alan.

Oscars 2021 Best Director predictions
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