'Minari' Director Reflects On The Yi Family's Experience, And Parallels To His Own Director Lee Isaac Chung's film is loosely based on his childhood. He tells NPR he's not trying to refute the idea of the American dream, but to speak to the feeling of "maybe waking up from a dream."
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'Minari' Director Reflects On The Yi Family's Experience, And Parallels To His Own

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'Minari' Director Reflects On The Yi Family's Experience, And Parallels To His Own

'Minari' Director Reflects On The Yi Family's Experience, And Parallels To His Own

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Lee Isaac Chung's new film "Minari" takes its name from a leafy, edible plant that grows seemingly everywhere in East Asia. And the film, even when it's planted in the U.S., it flourishes.


That's not exactly the case for the Yi family. Parents Monica and Jacob are Korean immigrants who've moved to a trailer home in Arkansas with their two second-generation kids to start a new life. It's the Reagan era, and the parents work as chicken sexers, ruffling through the baby birds' undersides and sorting them by sex. But Jacob's real aspiration is to use his land to start a farm and sell produce - the American dream, or a version of it.

KELLY: Our co-host Ailsa Chang spoke to Lee Isaac Chung about "Minari," which is partly drawn from his own memories of growing up on a farm with immigrant parents. Ailsa was curious, how hard was it to write a story loosely based on his family when in many ways it's not just his story, it's his parents', too?

LEE ISAAC CHUNG: Yeah, that part is actually incredibly difficult because I've always felt like people should have the agency to tell their own stories. And I wondered if I'm doing them injustice. I think one of the things that I had to establish for myself quite early on was the rule that this is not my parents and this is not me or my family, that somehow this has to become a family that exists solely in the film of "Minari." So, you know, I changed the names of the characters to become a different family name completely. They're the Yi family now, not the Chung family. And once I did that, I really invested in that idea and gave myself the freedom to just let them be themselves and not have to adhere to anyone in my life nor my parents'.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: Yeah. I can see that - though it raises this larger question that I find fascinating, speaking as a child of immigrants. And that is, you know, how does the second generation write a story told from the vantage point of the first generation? Like, are there blind spots we need to acknowledge that we have when we are trying to replicate, say, in your case, this character that was at least loosely based on your dad - replicate what your dad might have been thinking and feeling decades ago? Did you worry about any blind spots that you might have had?

CHUNG: Oh, completely. I worry about those blind spots. I still worry about the blind spots, to be honest. And I think that has to do with - when you're second-generation Korean American, it's hard to really see your parents fully. You kind of see the sacrifices that they make. And then on top of that, you start to have more of a language barrier with them, a cultural barrier. So you end up seeing your parents not for who they are in some sense. I don't know how to explain that, but you just feel this growing gap in a way.

I think, for me, I just needed to start to trust the idea that they are merely human. And what I did with this film was that I started to inject more of my own personal experience, my own personal angst and thoughts and in exploring myself in some sense, kind of start to see who they are, just because in some way, we're all the same.

CHANG: So have your parents watched this film? They have, right?

CHUNG: Yeah, they have. They have.

CHANG: And what did they think of it?

CHUNG: I get the sense that, first of all, they're very proud of what's happening. I think they're starting to get a little overwhelmed in a way. I mean, it feels like there's quite a lens being put on our lives and upon their story. And naturally, I think that creates some ambivalence. But they're being so supportive, and they genuinely love the film. And they felt like it really captured the spirit of what we went through as a family.

But my dad was out in Arkansas on the farm. He was cutting grass on his tractor. And he said some guy pulled up and took a picture of him with this long telephoto lens.

CHANG: Oh, my...

CHUNG: So you know, stuff like that, he's starting to worry a little bit. And I told him not to worry, that the paparazzi isn't going to come (laughter)...

CHANG: Come storming in.

CHUNG: ....Knocking down his door, yeah. But I think he's starting to feel a little bit of that focus. And, you know, we're trying to figure that out as a family.

CHANG: Yeah.

I want to talk about the way you approach racism in this film. You know, the story is not about racism, per se, but racism appears at the outer edges of some of the scenes, like when the family's at church.


JACOB WADE: (As Johnnie) Why's your face so flat?

ALAN KIM: (As David) It isn't.

WADE: (As Johnnie) My name is Johnnie. What's yours?

KIM: (As David) David.

WADE: (As Johnnie) Nice to meet you, David.

CHANG: Why did you decide to place that scene in a church specifically?

CHUNG: I guess there wasn't any loaded reason for putting that scene within the church. For us, church was kind of the way that we found our first entry into community in Arkansas. My parents would drop us off at the First Baptist Church of Lincoln so that we would make friends and we would learn English. And a lot of friendships might start in that way where there was some, you know, focus on the differences between us and them. But inevitably, it would lead to us becoming really good friends with each other.

And for me, that church scene, I wanted to do it that way because I felt like the discourse about racism in this country, maybe this film could add another layer to that. And it's not to discount racism - it's not to say that there is no racism because I certainly felt it when I was a kid, and I've experienced some quite terrible moments growing up - but that a lot of times, it's just the endeavor to connect and that there are frictions within that endeavor to connect and that, you know, sometimes it might even go both ways where it's this family you see in the movie. Many times, this family is trying to figure out white people and saying...

CHANG: Yeah. Like, the white people are the others.

CHUNG: ...Disparaging things sometimes. Exactly, yeah. So it kind of goes both ways. It's not just, you know, the Asians showing up and waiting to be accepted. But it's on both sides really trying to figure each other out as a community.

CHANG: Absolutely.

Ultimately, do you feel the story that you tell in this movie, does it uphold the idea of the American dream, or does it refute it - the ideal at least? What do you think?

CHUNG: I think in this country, we have many different people dreaming very different things. And I guess I wasn't necessarily seeking to refute any one dream or even this idea of the American dream that we have, but more speak into the feeling that we have these days of maybe waking up from a dream. I feel like we've kind of had to wake up from something in 2020. And what are we left with when we wake up from this? And to me, this film is trying to talk about the things that last versus the things that don't last. And whether the American dream fits in that or not, you know, I think - I leave that up to viewers. But I think that thing you find in the minari patch, I mean, that's going to feed you. That's going to stay with you.

CHANG: I love it.

Lee Isaac Chung's new movie is called "Minari."

Thank you so much for sharing this time with us.

CHUNG: Thank you so much, Ailsa.


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