Minari has been a lifetime in the making for writer-director Lee Isaac Chung. Born in the U.S. to immigrant parents and raised on a small farm in rural Arkansas, he always knew his experience was fertile ground for a movie, if not his directorial debut -- the Rwanda-set Munyurangabo -- then eventually. So, he began writing down memories, mining his youth for the moments that resonated with him decades later, but it wasn't until he landed on the title that he knew it was time to tell his story.
"A filmmaker I respect, named Lee Chang-dong, once told me, 'You don't start a film or a script until you can name it,'" Chung tells ET by Zoom. "The last memory I came to was of me and my grandma gathering these plants at a creek -- minari -- and I thought, 'That's the name.'"
The film centers around a Korean-American family in the '80s -- husband and wife Jacob and Monica, their children Anne and David, and her foul-mouthed, wrestling-loving mother Soonja -- as they settle in Ozarks in search of their American Dream. As he wrote, Chung kept coming back to the memory of minari growing along a creek. "I wanted to write a film that would end with a family that's gathering in this place," he says. "That was the North Star."
Chung sent his script to Steven Yeun, who happens to be his cousin by marriage, and the actor signed on as Jacob. He cast Yeri Han as Monica and newcomers Noel Cho and Alan S. Kim as their kids, with legendary Korean actress Youn Yuh-Jung agreeing to play the grandmother. "I asked my friends who gave me the script, 'Is it a real story of him? And she said yes. So, I said, 'OK, I will do it,'" Youn remembers. "You cannot beat any story other than your story, I think."
It was when Chung began speaking with his cast about the film that he first began to realize his autobiographical screenplay had the power to connect beyond himself. He remembers an early conversation with Youn in which she shared memories of her own grandmother that she hoped to incorporate into her character. "For instance, the moment where she eats the chestnut and offers it to Alan, that's something that she remembers herself," Chung says. "When I started to see those shared experiences, that's when I thought, 'This is what could make this special, if we really dig into those things.'"
Those moments continued as the cast and crew gathered on set in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Friends of Chung and his cast came all the way from Korea to lend a hand. Youn, as is customary, stepped into an elder role to lead the cast, even cohabitating with Han throughout filming in a case of life imitating art. Though Han says she initially responded to how much Minari reflected Chung as a person, while playing Monica, "I realized how young my own parents were when they raised us and how much trial and error they must have gone through."
"The journeys that all these characters go on and the individual journey that I was on within this character fully looped around," Yeun adds for his part. "When I looked back and saw how deep of a bond the cast and the crew had come to form in such a short amount of time, there was a really special feeling that this was something that was touching on something very foundational and real."
As has been said, in the particular lies the universal. One needs no further proof of that than Minari, a film that began as one writer's own personal memories and only became more specific as it was brought to life in exacting detail, without ever feeling a need to simplify itself for a broader audience. It's a film that is deeply Korean and deeply America, but that anyone can relate to.
"What excited me most was just the way that it was confident and bold in its own point of view, that the perspective that it spoke from was uncompromised and it wasn't trying to justify itself or explain itself," Yeun says. "It was just looking through the lens of this family and nothing else."
Minari's resonance only deepened as audiences found it. The film had its premiere at last year's Sundance Film Festival, where it won both the Grand Jury Prize and the U.S. Dramatic Audience Award. "Sundance was a very wild, amazing experience," recalls Yeun, "of having this film reach beyond the things that we try to categorize it at first [and] just get to each other in our own humanity."
Festival praise gave way to glowing reviews which led to nominations. AFI and the National Board of Review named Minari as one of the best films of 2020, with awards season recognition at the Critics Choice Awards, Indie Spirit Awards and Screen Actors Guild Awards. (At the latter, Yeun is up for Best Actor and Youn for Best Supporting Actress, while the ensemble was nominated for Outstanding Cast in a Motion Picture.) The Oscars is sure to follow, something Minari's cast says they never could have dreamed of.
"Of course, I knew that there were all these awards in Hollywood," the Korea-based Han says, "but I had no idea there were this many! Every day we're hearing news and Minari is constantly breaking its own record. But it's a little flustering. I'm grateful and I'm very happy, but it doesn't feel quite real. I'm just grateful for these precious memories, and when I get old, I think I'll look back and be like, 'Oh, this, yeah, that happened to me at one point in my life.'"
Amid the accolades and honors came a controversy, through no fault of Minari's own. The film earned but a single nomination at this year's Golden Globes, with the Hollywood Foreign Press Association barring Minari from the Best Picture categories since more than 50 percent of the dialogue is in a language other than English. (It earned its nomination in Best Foreign Language Film.) It's what The Farewell endured last year, prompting director Lulu Wang to tweet, "I have not seen a more American film than #Minari this year... We really need to change these antiquated rules that characterizes American as only English-speaking."
"I feel very proud to have been part of something like this, that I got to make this with these people and that as it gets out into the world, too, it challenges these notions," Yeun explains. "You can't rely on rules and institutions to capture how reality actually is -- it's often slow to come to these things -- and I'm glad to be part of something that pokes at those things."
"For me, what's bittersweet is just hearing other people recounting the ways in which they felt like foreigners in this place," Chung says. "And I know that feeling too well. I feel like I've heard a lot of people feeling hurt, my friends and stuff, but at the same time we just focus on the film itself and what this story is about. It's about a family that is not letting anyone define who they are -- they're going about their lives and defining themselves and really trying to stake out who they are on this land -- and that's what we hope for the film itself, that [despite] these external definitions and stuff placed upon it, in the end, it's just a story about human beings."
Minari is in select theaters now and available on demand on Feb. 26.