Ahead of the Academy Awards on April 25 and their film’s recent release in India, Minari director-actor duo, Oscar nominees Lee Isaac Chung and Steven Yeun, in an exclusive video chat with Bombay Times, talked about storytelling beyond cultural boundaries and how their film transcends colour and identity.
A lot has been spoken about this year’s Oscar contender (with six nominations) Minari, and what it stands for. Is it an immigrant movie about chasing the American dream? Is it an American film about Korean-Americans, and thus, deserved Best Film and not Best Foreign Language film at the Golden Globe? Does it represent an Asian American family who hope to make a new beginning in rural Arkansas through farming? Does it encourage inclusivity and give hope to filmmakers and actors of colour to not find themselves on the side-lines in Hollywood? More than anything, the film is a deeply personal tale about resilience and survival of a family, inspired by director Lee Isaac Chung’s (also the writer) childhood. Bombay Times had the opportunity to chat with this year’s Oscar nominees (leading role) actor Steven Yeun and (best director) Lee Isaac Chung in a video conversation. Excerpts…
Isaac, Minari is part autobiographical. Was
making it a cathartic experience?
What does it mean to be a father, husband or how do I love my wife and my daughter better? This is what I thought about when I made this film. We kept going back to what makes us human. We wanted to tell our story based on our own experiences and not let these experiences represent anything. It wasn’t about letting these experiences represent a particular identity, but saying what we went through as people. Growing up in the US and what that meant to us as human beings. It was hard to differentiate what’s fiction and what’s real. All of it is very personal and felt true to me. The story is based on the memories I have, which I restructured. A lot of dialogue did not happen, it was imagined. In creative work, things not necessarily had to have happened. The characters are very much removed from who my family actually is. I asked the actors to create new characters out of the script.
Every character fits their own reality but, in a way, that they have conflicts with each other. The little boy running after the grandmother in the end… that never happened. But it captured what I wished and desired. I wrote that to contend with my own past and regret. There is something very true about that moment though it was fictional. In a way, I felt Minari might be my last work. I wasn’t sure if I had any more chances to make films. If I didn’t do this, I would regret it. It was a ‘now or never’ situation for me.
Isaac, it’s fascinating how similar the Korean and Indian family structure is. Minari has a scene where the father asks his kid to share a room with his grandmother. Indian families are a lot like that. We stay together, share rooms and spaces even.
I am glad you felt that way. Every time we moved to a new place, my dad had this dream that all of us (the family) should share a room and sleep on the floor together (smiles!). He was obsessed with that. My sister and I would find it silly because who does that in the US! He loved doing that because that’s how he grew up with his parents. Writing that scene into this film was me wanting to remember and love my dad. It was me telling him, ‘look, I have us all sleeping on the floor together just as you wanted’. It was his way of loving us. The focus of the film was to show how we connect with each other as family despite the differences. People across the world I think connected with that. We all have families and we all have that innate desire to belong to each other. Every family has a different way of doing that, but the intent deep inside is the same. The desire to sacrifice, see each other, to get over loneliness, isolation and find each other — that is what I was invested in while making this film.
Steven, what are your thoughts on the global connect that Minari so finely establishes?
Your question brings up the idea and phrase I hear a lot — specificity is universality. The more specific you get with your personal identity, you get closer to humanity where we all can access each other. Although, where it gets strange is, who’s asking for that specificity? Who benefits from that question? Our culture is what we carry with us and within us. In Minari, we didn’t try to explain what it’s like to have that Korean heritage and work in America. We tried to understand the humanity of these people. The goal for us was not to dive into the specific nature or ethnicity, but go straight to humanity and authenticity. If I can rephrase the statement, ‘Humanity is universality’.
The film won the Golden Globe in the Best Motion Picture – Foreign Language category, a decision that was questioned by many, since the film is American and should have competed in the Best Film category. Your thoughts.
Isaac: Americans are watching films with subtitles and that’s not limited to films like Parasite (2019). People are watching K-dramas and stuff from around the world. It is fascinating. As far as the Golden Globe is concerned, that moment has passed but at least it triggered a conversation. The definition of an American work or work in general doesn’t need to have so many qualifications that exclude certain films. We can set a bigger table. That’s better than to categorise and separate.
Steven, how did you navigate the language (Korean) and essence of this movie?
The language is something I had to contend with. There’s Americanness inside my body that I need to contend with. It was wonderful to be cast in this film and see myself as an American and a Korean person. I feel blessed because you don’t feel burdened with representing something larger than yourself. The onus of being authentic was taken off the table because we were just all Korean people making this movie. It was something a lot of American actors have a luxury to do because they aren’t busy explaining the culture to the people in addition to explaining it to themselves. I realised how much extra work I was doing all this while.
Your film is nominated for six Oscars. How do you fancy your chances?
Steven: There are no expectations. I know the world has a way of easily boxing and labelling things. Immigrant story, American dream story, Korean story, American story… there are so many things to describe it, but it’s all the things. The more I tried to frame it, put it in my box, I realised it’s an uncontainable thing. It takes its own path. That’s how this film felt from the beginning. The film got noticed at the Sundance Film Festival and from that moment to here — it feels amazing. It reminds me that I was never in control. You just need to submit yourself to the story.
Isaac: I agree with Steven. It was a process of total submission. We were part of something much bigger. Steven said something very wise. ‘Everyone seems to be receiving something from Minari that they need in life.’