“Things that hide are more dangerous and scary,” says grandma to the unruly seven-year old David as they come across a snake in Lee Isaac Chung’s kindhearted and far-reaching “Minari” (2020). She’s recently arrived from Korea with seeds in her pockets of the peppery herb that give the film its title. She finds a placid spot with lots of shade by a creek in the land that her son-in law has bought in Arkansas. The stems from the plant are used as flavoring and as a daily tonic to cleanse the liver. It grows fast in the sun and shade as long as the ground is wet. It grows itself. It becomes a flawless symbol of the indefatigability of the immigrant spirit.
The landscape is the heartland – the Ozarks to be precise. “Look at the color,” the young patriarch Jacob Yi says. “This is why I picked this place. This is the best dirt in America.” When they got married in Korea, the young couple pledged to make an effort to “save themselves” and came to the United States – arriving first in California. Now, Jacob – without a complete buy-in from his wife Monica – has brought daughter Anne and son David to this uninhabited rural part of the country in the 1980s. It entails 50 acres with a mobile home plopped in the middle of it. Jacob’s plan is to grow Korean vegetables. The previous owners had failed at developing the same piece of land.
The movie – which is observant, tender and humorous – seems to unfold like a vibrant memory. At first it may seem a familiar tale of immigrants staking their claim at the American dream. Writer/director Chung immerses us in the family by having the dialogue delivered in Korean. It is common in American films to have characters speak English who would not in their private moments, so it is refreshing to have to read subtitles in a narrative about the United States and hearing them interact in their first language. The toll on the young Americans – as they forge ahead – is something that also feels anew.
“Korean people use their heads,” Jacob tells his son, as he stubbornly wants to find a water well on the property without outside help. Paul, a Pentecostal neighbor who speaks in tongues and carries a full size cross on the road on Sundays, offers to help out. Monica expresses her frustrations to Jacob in heated arguments. The kids make paper airplanes with the words “don’t fight” and throw them at mom and dad. Young David has a heart murmur and wets his bed. Mom is concerned about how far the nearest hospital is, and who would help her take care of the children.
They agree on bringing Monica’s mother to live with them. The arrival of Grandma is a game changer. She brings a whole bag of treasures for Monica – including chili powder – and doles out nonsensical advice and wisdom. When Monica says she’s embarrassed about their mobile home, she quips, “Because the house has wheels?! It’s fun!” At first she and David are antagonistic towards each other. “Grandma smells like Korea,” he says. She’s not your typical Grandma according to him. She doesn’t know how to cook, nor bake cookies. This character could have easily become a caricature for she brings a lot of comic relief – being on the receiving end of David’s pranks and with her foul mouth. Under the hands of actress Yuh-Jung Youn, she becomes one of the most memorable characters, nurturing and wise. She slowly endears herself to young David, freeing him from the neurosis instilled by his doting parents. “Getting hurt is all part of growing up,” she tells him. Their bonding represents the rectification of the old and new world.
Jacob wants to show his children what he’s capable of by succeeding in this endeavor – at whatever cost – even that of his own personal happiness and that of his wife. Monica and Jacob’s relationship seems to be teetering on the verge of a precipice for most of the film. Steve Yeun – who made a name for himself with a recurring role on TV’s “The Walking Dead” and was so memorable in the enigmatic South Korean thriller “Burning” (2028) – is a revelation as the mostly stoic and determined Jacob who seems to be constantly questioning himself internally. He reminded me of Henry Fonda in “The Grapes of Wrath.” Yeri Han as Monica has the most difficult role. She could have become grating and shrill – instead, it is a deeply sympathetic characterization of a woman on the verge.
Cinematographer Lachlan Milne’s beautiful photography creates a veritable garden of eden with rich greens and rich blue skies – imbuing it all with a sense of optimism and opportunity. The rousing scoring is by composer Emile Mosseri.
There are details that are so specific and that make it all so appealing. I don’t recall seeing a film which so lovingly and painstakingly expresses how taxing it is for young Americans to build their dream. Without a doubt, this is one of the best films of 2020.
Jacob: “It’s growing well on its own. Grandma picked a good spot.”
Available to stream in the A24 Screening Room beginning February 12th and to rent on Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes/Apple TV, Vudu, FandangoNow starting on February 26th.
Written and Directed by Lee Isaac Chung
Starring Steven Yeun, Han Ye-ri, Alan Kim, Noel Kate Cho, Youn Yuh-jung and Will Patton
Bringing “Minari” to the Screen
It was in 2018 that Yeun, who had made a transition from fan favorite on “The Walking Dead” to prolific indie actor, signed with a new agent, CAA’s Christina Chou, who mentioned that she also repped his cousin. “And I was like, ‘What are you talking about?’ ” he says. The actor then remembered Chung, a first cousin of his wife whom he occasionally crossed paths with at family weddings. Yeun, who had seen Chung’s 2007 drama “Munyurangabo” in theaters, read “Minari,” and not only did he sign on to play Jacob, the film’s patriarch, but he also committed to executive produce — his first producing credit. “After Okja I got sent a lot of, you know, Asian material, and I hadn’t read anything that resonated with me,” says Plan B producer Christina Oh. It was at the top of 2019 that Yeun, whom she worked with on the Bong Joon Ho-directed Netflix movie, sent her “Minari.” The story’s central family felt familiar to her personally (Oh also grew up in the ’80s as the child of Korean immigrants), but, as a producer, she knew these characters were unfamiliar to Hollywood. “That authenticity is something we strive for,” she says. These initial machinations, while coming together quickly, were happening half a world away from Chung, who had relocated to South Korea to teach university courses on film history and documentary film. “I was an art house guy, making little, not-much-happening films,” he explains of his career, which has included Cannes and TIFF selections but no overtly commercial work. He had begun to plan his second career as a professor when he received a call from a very confident Oh, saying, “Dude, let’s do it,” as she outlined a summer shooting schedule and talked about finding financial partners in A24.
“While it is a very American film, the majority of the film is in Korean,” says Oh. “We thought, ‘Who are our partners that would be willing to take a risk?’ ” The answer came with the beloved indie studio that worked with Plan B on “Moonlight” and was readying to release “The Farewell,” Lulu Wang’s family dramedy that is in both English and Mandarin. The go-ahead from A24 came in April 2019, with a location scout starting immediately in hopes of making a mid-July start that would allow production to avoid the Great Plains’ tornado season. Arkansas, where the story takes place, did not have the existing production infrastructure that a movie of Minari’s budget required. And while Georgia, Hollywood’s favorite tax haven, was considered, at the time the state’s controversial anti-abortion Heartbeat Bill kept the filmmakers away. This is how the production landed squarely in Middle America, shooting outside Tulsa, Oklahoma, at the foothills of the Ozarks. (hollywoodreporter.com)
The Making of “Minari”
Shooting on location meant that almost every set piece, prop, costume and support staffer would have to be found or built, within the movie’s budget, which came in under $10 million. Since much of the film takes place in a cramped mobile home, production designer Yong Ok Lee found herself haggling with a remodeled trailer home salesman who advertised on local television in Tulsa. “The people who run that place thought she was out of her mind,” jokes Chung. Lee rummaged through rows of mobile homes, Frankensteining together a late-’70s single-wide by pulling lighting fixtures from one mobile home, a carpet from another and siding from yet another to create the movie’s central set. “Minari” is an ’80s period piece, but not of the Day-Glo leg-warmer variety. Costume designer Susanna Song was tasked with finding clothes that could populate a low-income household in a color palette that would not overwhelm the film’s natural exteriors. An abandoned Oklahoma department store called Bayouth’s that closed in the late ’90s, with all its product still inside, proved vital. “There was a film of dust over a lot of things. My assistant actually found a rat hanging off a dress,” Song says with a laugh of horror. After roughly four weeks of prep, production was able to start in July, with the trailer driven to an empty field amid working farmland. The good news about making the July start date was that tornados weren’t a concern; the bad news was that temperatures averaged in the high 90s. And the trailer, which could not be air-conditioned during filming without compromising sound, would be even hotter during takes, sometimes reaching into the low 100s.
“Film shoots generally don’t smell good,” offers Chung. “With the accolades the film has been getting, we joke if they would be saying these things if they knew what that trailer smelled like.” Because there were no multiples of the vintage wardrobe, Song, who made sure not to dress the cast in polyester, was doing laundry every night. (Chung’s wrap gifts to the production were T-shirts emblazoned with a trailer home and the phrase “Livin’ the Dream.”) Outside of the mobile home, the shoot’s largest set was a barn that needed to be built and then, in the movie’s climax, burned to the ground. With cinematographer Lachlan Milne, Chung fought to actually burn down the barn, explaining to nervous producers, who were hoping to use digital flames, that “this is not a film with car cases. This is leading up to a devastating moment, and it needs to be a spectacle.” Adds Milne: “It needed to be visually tragic.” A local pyrotechnics expert was brought in, and the barn was scored to allow for a controlled collapse. Milne ran around the periphery of the flames with a handheld camera, while keeping the cast at a safe distance as the burn grew in size. For Yeun and co-star Yeri Han, who plays his resilient onscreen wife, Monica, the scene, which came at the end of a 25-day shoot, was a welcome catharsis. “I just stared at the fire, watching all of [Jacob’s] work being burned to the ground, and I looked at Yeri and she was sobbing,” remembers Yeun. “To have an immersive experience was incredible.” (hollywoodreporter.com)
About Cinematographer Lachlan Milne
Lachlan Milne is an internationally acclaimed cinematographer who has shot multiple-award-winning feature films, television, shorts and commercials. Recent credits of Lachlan’s include the upcoming feature film “Love and Monsters” for Paramount Pictures and 21 Laps Entertainment (dir. Michael Matthews, 2020) as well as “Minari” (dir. Lee Isaac Chung, 2020) for Plan B Entertainment and A24; the film had its World Premiere in dramatic competition at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival where it won both the Dramatic Grand Jury Prize Award and the Dramatic Audience Award, 2020. Lachlan shot Abe Forsyth’s “Little Monsters” (Made Up Stories, 2019) which premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival; as well as the third season of Netflix’s blockbuster series “Stranger Things” (21 Laps Entertainment/ Netflix, 2019). Some of Lachlan’s other feature credits include Taika Waititi’s hit film “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” (Piki Films, 2016) which premiered at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival opening weekend and was nominated for Best Cinematography at the New Zealand Film and Television Awards; Abe Forsythe’s black comedy “Down Under” (Wild Eddie, 2015), which premiered at the Sydney Film Festival in 2016; “Not Suitable for Children” (Wild Eddie Films, 2013) for Oscar nominated director, Peter Templeman and has worked with AFI winning director Bill Bennett on “Uninhabited” (prod. Silvana Milat, 2010). Lachlan recently finished working on “Next Goal Wins” (2021), which reunites him with Director Taika Waititi and stars Elizabeth Moss and Michael Fassbender. He is currently shooting the fourth season of “Stranger Things” (2021) for Netflix. (cameronsmanagement.com.au)
About Composer Emile Mosseri
Emile Mosseri is an award-winning composer, pianist, singer and producer who has quickly made a name for himself in the world of film and television scoring with his song-based approach to crafting emotionally-stirring compositions. Mosseri made his feature film score debut with Sundance standout “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” (2019), garnering extensive critical acclaim from Pitchfork, LA Times, Entertainment Weekly and more, with NPR lauding, “Mosseri’s score gives the film an extra layer of poetry and transcendence.” A breakout moment for the young composer, the sweepingly romantic score cemented Mosseri as a sought-after collaborator, next joining director Miranda July for her comedic crime drama “Kajillionaire” (2020). Described by Billboard as “an integral part of the film and a delight on its own,” Mosseri’s score also featured a collaboration with acclaimed singer-songwriter Angel Olsen, the duo pairing up for a cover of Bobby Vinton classic “Mr. Lonely.” Meanwhile, Mosseri’s television credits include Terence Nance’s HBO series “Random Acts of Flyness” as well as season 2 of Amazon’s “Homecoming,” with Vulture describing his work as “the secret weapon” of the Janelle Monáe-led show. Mosseri’s latest project is director Lee Isaac Chung’s family drama “Minari,” which made its award-winning debut at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. The score has once again been lauded by critics. (emilemosseri.com)
About Writer and Director Lee Isaac Chung
The son of Korean immigrants, Chung was raised in the Ozark mountains of Arkansas on a small farm. He attended Yale University, majoring in ecology as an undergraduate and planning for a career in medicine. But during his senior year, he felt that his calling lay elsewhere. “I had to take an arts requirement course, and I took video arts from professor and filmmaker Michael Roemer,” Chung said. “This class inspired me, and I poured every minute I had into it.” He found his passion in filmmaking and decided to pursue it as a career instead. “I realized that I wanted to spend the rest of my life doing something that I can work at in a way that makes me forget the time.” After graduating from Yale, he sent out applications to various film schools for his master’s, staying mindful of student debt. His decision to attend the U came from inexpensive tuition and a phone call he received. “The call came from Professor Kevin Hanson, and I felt an instant kinship with him,” Chung said. The U was the only school that personally reached out to him. Chung graduated with a Master of Fine Arts in 2004 and began his successful filmmaking career…In 2007, Chung was the only director from the United States to receive an official selection at Cannes for his first feature film, “Munyurangabo.”“Munyurangabo” centers on two boys who forge a relationship in the aftermath of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. It was the first narrative feature made in Rwanda’s native language of Kinyarwanda, which Chung doesn’t speak. He was inspired to make this film after a visit to Rwanda in the summer of 2006 with his wife, who had previously gone to do volunteer work. “I needed to find something to do,” Chung said. “I taught a film production course, and we set out to make a film together.” Chung shot the film in 11 days, and voiced that the language barrier was not so difficult. “Everyone was very focused on collaborating to make a good film, since none of us had really been given the chance to make a feature film,” Chung said. In addition to “Munyurangabo,” Chung has directed four other films — “Lucky Life” (2010), “Abigail Harm” (2012), “I Have Seen My Last Born” (2015) and “Minari” (2020). (dailyutahchronicle.com)