Lee Isaac Chung’s “Minari” (December 11, A24) just got a big fat Christmas present from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, whose rules forced producers to submit the Korean immigrant drama in the Golden Globes foreign language category, an identical situation to Lulu Wang’s “The Farewell” at the 2020 Globes. Controversy erupted from Wang and others, because it means that the film will not compete for Best Motion Picture Drama, although its actors are eligible in acting categories.
So why is this a good thing?
Most Oscar voters have never heard of “Minari.” After the movie burst out of Sundance 2020 with rave reviews and the U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize and the U.S. Dramatic Audience Award, A24 was juggling release options, knowing that despite all their best efforts, indie box office smash “The Farewell” ($17.7 million domestic) never landed an Oscar nomination, instead taking home Best Feature at the Independent Spirit Awards. Clearly, a “Minari” summer release was not in the cards after COVID closed many theaters. But A24 never wavered in pursuing an Oscar campaign for the film, booking the movie on the (subdued) fall festival circuit.
This year, building buzz and awareness and turning a quiet rural family drama into a must-see on the Academy screening portal is a challenge. That’s why the Globes controversy may be a boost for the movie, which garnered support from the Gotham Awards and early critics groups (Los Angeles, Boston) for supporting actress Youn Yuh-jung.
Once awards voters see “MInari,” they will respond. The story about a determined young farmer (Steven Yeun) trying to build a sustainable future for his family is relatable during these troubled times, as he and his wife (Yeri Han), her mother (Youn), and their young son (Alan S. Kim) face down one devastating hurdle after another.
Whatever happens with the Oscars, Chung has arrived in Hollywood, after three respected films that did not resonate with audiences outside the festival circuit. Having embraced improvisational acting techniques (inspired by Abbas Kiarostami, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, and Wong Kar Wai), the Yale grad, who initially eschewed pursuing the Los Angeles connections that most filmmakers crave, decided that it was time to figure out how to write a more accessible movie.
“I wanted to find my own way through it,” he said. “But the craft in itself, there is no way to hone it and practice it. I feel something about that was challenging to me. I didn’t grow up breathing cinema. I had to figure it all out in public.”
And he wanted to make something more personal. So he created a fictional fable based on his upbringing on an Arkansas farm, retaining the point of view of his seven-year-old self. Remarkably, this structure works, giving us an open-eyed, honest, and often comedic take on what is going on. “I took time off and realized that what I was lacking was the discipline in trying to write a script.”
Partly, Chung’s thinking changed when he had a kid. “I had to stop taking myself and the craft that seriously,” he said. “Somehow I saw the bigger context of life. It’s just a movie. What I wanted was to entertain and delight and put the audience on a nice ride. The images, we knew we wouldn’t have a lot of time. I didn’t want the film to call attention to the directorial choices. I wanted the attention to go the family and the performances. I tried to keep it simple, and not do too many flourishes.”
For “Minari,” Chung’s cinematic inspiration was Francois Truffaut’s alter-ego Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Leaud) in “The 400 Blows.” And his literary inspirations were Willa Cather’s autobiographical “My Antonia,” told from the point of view of a little boy, as well as Anton Chekhov’s short story “The Step.”
After much tinkering, Chung figured out how to let “the boy provide the eyes somehow,” he said. “You enter into it not just with the boy in the present, but the idea is containing a retrospection, looking back at a story through memory.”
Chung scrapped his original voiceover before production. “He clearly has more insight into all these characters and relationships than a boy actually would,” he said. “Once you go with Steven Yeun and you take away [the boy’s] gaze, at various points, somehow that would topple the film over. It doesn’t work as much, it’s self serious. It works seeing it through innocent eyes, that anchored the film. [In the editing room] I put him staring in a couple of moments. That wasn’t in the script.”
Getting help to develop the script was key, and production executive Christina Oh (“The Last Black Man in San Francisco”) pulled him into Plan B. “She felt a deep passion for the story,” he said. “They try to protect the director’s intent in a project. They made sure to bring on a team of people to help me realize it, like the DP Lachlan Milne, Harry Yeun the editor, the production designer, the composer from ‘The Last Black Man in San Francisco.'”
Frequent Plan B partner A24 (“Moonlight”) came on board as the financing studio before production.
As for the autobiographical aspects of the story, Chung said, “There’s nothing in the film that is dishonest, but it’s hard to pinpoint, what actually happened or not, what is fictionalized for the sake of the narrative. There was a fire, and my grandmother did watch wrestling quite a lot.”
Yeun provided some bankable star power. “Not only is he charismatic and electrifying,” said Chung. “Something about him brings you on that journey, no matter what he’s doing. What Jacob is doing is a little reprehensible, bringing his family to the farm. He hasn’t asked for any collaboration with his wife for this venture, he’s putting his family through a big risk. In order for the audience to still go along with him he has to be somebody like Steven, who will elicit our sympathy and understanding as to why he’s doing what he’s doing. We jumped him into executive producer at the start of this, in large part due to his involvement with Plan B and A24.”
The director lived in Korea for a few months in order to cast the film. He wanted Korean movie star Youn Yuh-jung to play the Korean grandmother who swoops into the family, but she took some convincing. “She read a script from a guy known for making films about Rwanda,” he said. “She’s a legend and an icon in Korea, there was nothing to be gained by doing this, to be honest. At this point in her life, it’s gravy. Even my parents felt like, ‘My son finally made it working with Youn Yuh-jung.'”
Chung shot the film on a shoestring in 25 days. “And we only had Alan for six hours on set, and he was in almost every scene,” he said. “It was not long hours. It was bursts of intense hours, short hours, including no room for error ever. Lachlan [Milne] and I turned to each other and said, ‘We’re just working on intuition, there’s no time to think.’ I just believe Lachlan can do anything. He’s a superhero.”
The sparring young boy and grandmother was the match-up that kept on giving. “Alan was great at being present and then Jung was so good at creating a fun atmosphere with her performance,” he said. “They had incredible chemistry. I was laughing behind the monitor and discovering new things, and that comes across in the film.”
“Minari” was a multilingual set, with many of the Korean actors not able to speak fluent English. “I tried not to create a separation between the Koreans and the crew,” said Chung. “One of the joys was to see the crew making the film personal to them. They’re local crew from Tulsa and Oklahoma city, they are farmers, or grew up the way I did. I found things resonated with them. We wanted it to be human first and foremost.”
And Chung wanted the movie to feel like a fable or a tall tale. “So much of it is meant to be neat in the way it fits together,” said Chung, “and dreamy in a way I felt maybe a tale would be.”
Will the movie get past the Golden Globes into Oscar contention? A little controversy can’t hurt.