Lee Isaac Chung – Minari: “I thought it was going to be my last movie”

More than a year after its full box at Sundance, Korean film by Lee Isaac Chung has just been awarded at the Golden Globes and at the Oscars. A look back at the creation of a work imagined as the ultimate gesture of a director and which has finally become his passport to glory.

At 40, Lee isaac chung told himself it was time to move on. That the cinema was ultimately not made for him and that after three feature films, it was better to leave it there. He was obviously then a thousand miles from dreaming about what he is now experiencing with his fourth film. Minari, which collects the awards, from Sundance 2020 to the 2021 Oscars. “I had just been hired to become a teacher in Korea. I had six months free before I left. So I decided to embark on what would be my very last scenario. For me who had never made a personal film, it was the occasion or never!“Thus was born the portrait of this American-Korean family – inspired by his own – moving to a small farm in Arkansas in the heart of the 1980s. A film that will allow those who thought they were lost for the 7th art to return to center of the game.

Minari: a luminous film mixing genres with enveloping dexterity [critique]

Because this taste for cinema, Lee Isaac Chung owes it to his father. “In Korea, he spent his free time in theaters where, for a dollar, you could see second or third run American films. The copies were so damaged that he had come to believe that it was still raining in the United States!“, he recalls smiling from the other side of our Zoom connection.”His hero was James Dean. And it is the vision of these films that made him want to go and live in these American landscapes to create a new life for himself with his family.

This passion, he naturally transmits it to his son, born in Denver in 1978, who will however take it twice before deciding to make it his profession. “I loved to write but joining Yale I felt like no one compared to others. “He is therefore moving towards medical studies … before the cinema catches up with him. Thanks to the discovery of Wong Kar-Wai’s feature films, then to the courses he decides to take – in the last year of medicine – with Michael Roemer, the director of Harry Plotnick, alone against all, who pushes his students to sign a small film on video every week.

If this click definitively puts an end to his ambition to become a doctor, Lee Isaac Chung does not have a career plan. No more than scenarios in his drawers. The proof ? His first feature, Munyurangabo, was born in 2007, without any premeditation, in Rwanda where he accompanied his wife art therapist who came to help the victims of the genocide. There, he began to give film lessons before embarking, on a basis of nine pages written with a friend, in the making of a film by relying on his students for the technical team and non- professionals from local orphanages as actors. The film will have a crazy career … to the steps of Cannes where it was selected for Un certain regard and described as a masterpiece by the very influential American critic Roger Ebert.

Lee Isaac Chung on the set of Minari
Lee Isaac Chung on the set of Minari / ARP Sélection

Dead end

The ideal launch pad then. But there will be no flight. His next two long ones – Lucky Life in 2010 and Abigail Harm in 2012 – go unnoticed. The director understands that he has locked himself in a dead end. “By making films under the assumed influence of Tarkovski, Hou Hsiao-Hsien or Kiarostami, I ran after a cinema that was not like me and for which I was not made. “The desire to reconnect with a less authoritative cinema will therefore be at the origin of Minari. With a strange boost from fate, or more precisely a name which suddenly resonates in his ears, without it being can still explain why today. That of Willa Cather, an American novelist, considered by Faulkner as one of the greatest authors of the twentieth century and whose works he discovers have just fallen into the public domain. particularly to one of them, My Antonia, whose account of the author’s childhood years on a Nebraska farm echoes his childhood in Arkansas.

Spontaneously, he considers adapting it before discovering that Willa Cather had hated during his lifetime the only adaptation of his work (A Lost Lady with Barbara Stanwyck) and that, on her deathbed, she had expressed the wish that no one else transposes her works on the big screen. Lee Isaac Chung then decides to respect his will and focus on his own childhood memories. “One afternoon, I started to write down pictures, details, moments on a sheet of paper … And, quite quickly, I saw that I was holding the arc of a story with this Korean father. who, settled for years in the United States, decides, without telling anyone, to buy a farm and settle his tribe there. ” Minari (named after the plant that her grandmother brought in her luggage when she joined them) will therefore be her first autobiographical film. An exercise that filmmakers generally tackle when they are just starting out. “I was then too immature to reflect on that past. I needed to have other experiences. And, to understand my parents, to become a father myself. It is no coincidence that I felt ready when I am exactly the age my father was when he decided to move to this farm … and my daughter is the age that was mine at that time.

However, Lee Isaac Chung intends to go beyond the simple personal aspect. “As I thought it was going to be my last film, I wanted to broach a lot of different subjects. “To speak of family then, but also of nature, religion (there is a very influential Christian community in the village where the family settles) or even of the American dream. This idea of ​​multiplicity of the topics is also found in the mixture inspirations that accompany it in writing. The 400 blows by Truffaut (for the figure of the child), Stromboli and Journey to Italie of Rossellini (for the parents’ relationship) or the novelist Mary Flannery O’Connor whose talent he appreciates in developing characters that are not necessarily sympathetic at first. “It was essential for me not to classify my characters as good guys and bad guys. To make the spectators fall in love with the members of this family for their faults as much as for their qualities. “

From the outset, the language of the story seemed to him just as essential. “I only imagined this film in Korean. Making my characters speak English would have meant observing this family through an American perspective, that of the majority culture. However, with Minari, I wanted the opposite: to talk about my culture and to share it.“You would think that was an obstacle to its funding. Wrongly.”First, because the film was inexpensive. Then, because my producer, American-Korean, immediately agreed“It was then that he had been working as a teacher in Korea since September 2018 that he learned, in the spring of 2019, that Minari will see the light of day, Plan B [la société de production de Brad Pitt] having been seduced by the script and by the choice of Steven Yeun (Burning and The Walking Dead) to play the role of the father. “Once the script was over, I only thought about Steven, but I was intimidated to tell him about it.. “Even though Yeun is married to his own cousin! It is ultimately their common agent who will establish contact and thus definitely put the film on the road to financing, because in the wake of Plan B, A 24 enters the loop for a shoot in the summer of 2020.

Memories memories

Lee Isaac Chung returns from Korea before the end of the school year, completes his cast by notably engaging in the role of grandmother Youn Yu-jung [qui a reçu l’Oscar de la meilleure actrice dans un second rôle], dean of Korean cinema and family idol. Then he embarks on an express preparation, with his director of photography, Lachlan Milne. “I was still living in Korea when we first spoke on Skype. I had spotted his work in films, series like Stranger Things and commercials. I found that he had this particular eye for the natural light I was looking for, an ability to create poetry in it.

This obsession with the natural will also guide the filmmaker throughout the five weeks of filming. In particular in his work with the actors. “On the set, I tried to surprise them as much as possible, for example by doing everything so that Youn Yu-jung and the children did not interact off the set so that their meeting on the screen was really the first, or in hiding from certain actors what their partners were going to do in certain scenes. “With, throughout these days, the emotion of seeing his memories come to the surface during a project whose real content this great modesty has hidden from his own family until the very end of the editing. A stage where he will also decide to cut the text in a voice-over which was to end the story. Because the message of love is in the film and there is no need to add more. Like the symbol that Minari no longer belongs to him. To the point of upsetting his fate, since whoever thought of stopping his career after this final film would have to make the live adaptation of the masterpiece of Japanese animation, Your Name. As for his parents’ farm, although they moved to Colorado, it still exists and the whole family meets there regularly to keep it as it is.

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