Oscar nominee profile: Original Screenplay ‘Minari’ and its emotional universality with small details

Lee Isaac Chung, with three films under his belt, wanted to write one more screenplay before taking a teaching job in Korea. He decided to create a story inspired by his own family who moved to Arkansas when he was just a boy, hoping to give his young daughter some idea of her family’s history. Not only was that mission accomplished, but the resulting script, “Minari,” has earned Chung his first Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay.

Chung’s “Minari” screenplay will now vie for the Oscar with Aaron Sorkin‘s historical drama “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” Emerald Fennell‘s genre-bending “Promising Young Woman,” Will Berson and Shaka King‘s historical biopic “Judas and the Black Messiah” and the drama “Sound of Metal” written by Darius Marder and his brother Abraham Marder.

In Chung’s story, the Yi family migrates to the Ozarks so that dad Jacob (Oscar nominee Steven Yeun) can follow his dream to become a farmer, a dream that gets off to quite a rocky start. The family’s new life soon begins to wear on his wife Monica (Yeri Han) and children Anne (Noel Cate Cho) and David (the impossibly adorable Alan S. Kim), through whose eyes Chung has decided to tell his story. With family life on the brink of fraying, Jacob sends for Monica’s mother Soon-ja (Oscar nominee Yuh-Jung Youn) whose irrepressible personal style threatens at first to disrupt the family even further but whose love for them all ultimately helps to bring the family together.

What makes Chung’s screenplay stand apart from other family reminiscences and makes it Oscar-worthy is the unique blend of its emotional universality (from the joys of following your dream to the worry that your dream will just not be good enough) with the cultural specificity of his small details (only if you’ve lived it would a writer come up with a line that disdainfully describes another family member with “She smells like Korea”).

In addition to his Oscar nomination, Chung has been nominated for the Satellite, Critics Choice and Independent Spirit Awards, and his script has been named the year’s Best Original Screenplay from critics groups in Austin, Florida, Toronto and San Francisco.

Oscar history over the years has shown that Academy Awards for Original Screenplay are closely divided between those that appeal to the head and those that cater to the heart. If there was ever a screenplay in this race that can appeal to both, it certainly is “Minari.”

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