What Does a Childhood Memory Look and Sound Like? How ‘Minari’ Found the Answer

Toolkit Podcast: Director Lee Isaac Chung found visual reverence in remembrance, while composer Emile Mosseri gave the film an otherworldly feel.
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Minari” is, in many ways, an autobiographical film. Based on writer/director Lee Isaac Chung’s experience as the child of two Korean immigrants who up on an Arkansas family farm in the 1980s, the details of the film reflect Chung’s own upbringing. But as a piece of storytelling, the film is rooted more in memory than an attempt to document a specific time and place.

When Chung was recently on IndieWire’s Filmmaker Toolkit podcast, he discussed how he reached for a more impressionistic reverence as he tried to capture the feeling of what this world felt like as a child.

“I don’t think a realistic approach to this film would have really worked, because it is an act of remembrance,” said Chung. “So I tried to dig into that when it came to the production. … I thought it needed to take on the feeling of a fable, or some type of classic story, and I felt like that is directly attributed to the fact that it is starting with memory as a starting point.”

This applied to all aspects of the film’s visual and aural language. While on the podcast, Chung talked about how he and cinematographer Lachlan Milne created a shooting plan to avoid the harsh ooverhead Arkansas sun from feeling forbidding or oppressive. Instead, the cinematographer and director strove to create compositions where the natural landscape evoked the sense of wonder Chung had as small child seeking refuge in nature.

One of the most effective tools Chung had to work with in finding this autobiographical fable-like quality was the ethereal score of composer Emile Mosseri, who joined the director on the second half of the Toolkit podcast.

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“The main challenge is, what does childhood memory sound like?,” said Mosseri in discussing his collaboration with Chung. “Not what does Arkansas sound like, not what does a Korean family sound like, or what do the ‘80s sound like, but what does childhood memory sound like?”

Chung gave Mosseri little in the way of initial guidance, except to establish the score should not draw on any instrumentation that would connect it to traditional Korean music, or the twangy Americana of music from the heartland. Working off just his emotional reaction to Chung’s script, the composer wrote a vast majority of what became the film’s musical themes and melodies before production started. He’d first sketch out and compose the songs on his piano, and then explore different instrumentation that could capture the right feel and texture of recollection.

“There’s an ’80s core synthesizer that has a bit of theremin quality to it,” said Mosseri. “That I would double with woodwinds so that it didn’t announce itself as an ’80s synth sound, but there was something alien about it, there was something otherworldly about it, that kind of creates that dream-like feeling.”

Chung admits he didn’t have a clear sense of the role that music would play in the film, but the early collaboration with his composer, plus having some music written before production, turned out to be key.

“It was incredible to have that, and to drive every day to set listening to his songs, and to let that seep into the whole production,” said Chung. “Now I see it has to go this way, you have to have the music, particularly for a story meant to be a fable or a memory. … [M]usic is akin to food somehow, it’s something that is so personal, it brings you joy and lets you remember things.”

The Filmmaker Toolkit podcast is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, OvercastStitcher, and  SoundCloud. The music used in this podcast is from the “Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present” score, courtesy of composer Nathan Halpern.

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