Minari director Lee Isaac Chung: ‘My friends back in Arkansas are the audience I wanted to connect with’

Oenanthe javanica, AKA water celery or Japanese parsley, is a herb used in various Asian cuisines; in Korea it’s known as minari. “It’s the type of plant you put into food to provide a little bit more of a kick,” says Korean-American film-maker Lee Isaac Chung. Chung didn’t like it himself as a child, but his grandmother planted it on the Arkansas farm where the director grew up, and Minari is now the title of his new feature – a fictionalised evocation of his childhood.

The herb is known for flourishing where other plants struggle – making Minari a suitable name for a story about the fight to put down roots, as Chung’s family did when they arrived in Arkansas in the 1970s. Seen through the eyes of seven-year-old David Yi, Minari is a lyrical, often droll story about family ties, cultural identity and the problems kids might have with a grandmother they love, but who can be weird and embarrassing, too. Minari won the grand jury prize and the audience award in Sundance last year, and last week won best foreign language film at the Golden Globes, with Oscar hopes ahead.

As autobiography, Minari is a mixture of things that did and didn’t happen, says the 42-year-old film-maker over the phone. But throughout, its recollections of the family farm are deeply charged with personal meaning. “When we arrived, it was a field with very tall grass. I still remember how tall that grass was to me as a boy, and how we would see snakes slithering into it as we went walking.”

Jacob and Monica, the parents in the film, sex chickens for a living, as Chung’s own parents did (he researched chicken sexing for Minari, and discovered that it demands practice and insight: “The genitals are very hard to decipher, and you only learn through intuition”). Jacob (played by Steven Yeun, from The Walking Dead and acclaimed Korean arthouse hit Burning) wants to cultivate an unpromising plot of land to grow produce for the Korean-American market. Chung’s own parents, who came to the US at a high point of Korean immigration, had moved around the US, from Colorado to Atlanta to Arkansas, arriving at their farm when Chung was five.

They were then joined by Chung’s grandmother, who came from Korea to look after him and his older sister. In the film, the children are at first baffled by her – which is exactly how Chung remembers it. “She was a kid like us in many ways, the way that she would behave,” he says with a fond laugh. “We were used to the stereotypical idea of a grandmother on television, and she was not like that at all – plus she was very young; she must have been in her early 50s. We thought she didn’t even look like a grandmother, she looked like a young woman who would curse and want to teach us how to gamble.”

Soon-ja, the grandmother in Minari, is cast two decades older than she really was, and is played fizzingly by Youn Yuh-jung, a revered doyenne of South Korean cinema and TV. “I really loved the spirit that she embodies,” says Chung. “She has that reputation in Korea of someone who always speaks her mind, and because of that she’s given a lot of respect and admiration. She seems to remain true to who she is. And she’s a tremendous actor.”

Minari pulls off a rare feat in getting its five leads of different ages to feel genuinely like a close-knit family unit – tenderness, tensions and all. Chung has two terrific young actors in Alan S Kim as David and Noel Cho as his older sister, Anne. His trick for directing children? “I guess I don’t try to become their best friend.” Then there’s the sixth, unofficial family member. He’s played by the esteemed screen actor Will Patton, who contributes a gleefully unrestrained performance as farm worker Paul, an impassioned Christian who speaks in tongues and drags a massive cross along the road on Sunday. This must be invention, surely? Not at all, says Chung. “That comes from a real person in our lives who would do that. I wasn’t sure if it was just an Arkansas thing, but I’ve heard other people from very rural places say they knew a guy who did that too. I look on him as an artist in that community, and this is the way he’s found to express his art.”

Now based in Pasadena, California, Chung majored in ecology at Yale, then went to Utah to study film. In 2007 he made his first feature, Munyurangabo, in Rwanda, in the Kinyarwanda language. This seems a wildly ambitious move for a debut director, but Chung admits: “I’m not much of a visionary guy when it comes to figuring out how to go about my career.” Munyurangabo came about because Chung’s wife, Valerie, an art therapist, was going to work in Rwanda and suggested he join her. Chung made the film as part of a film-making course he taught there.

The result, shot with a Rwandan cast and crew, is an arrestingly spare fable about a fraught friendship between two young men in the aftermath of the country’s civil war. Chung tackled the problem of directing in an unfamiliar language by having his students translate the dialogue for him on set. “If you turn up that film, sometimes you can hear whispering, telling me exactly what’s been said.”

While Munyurangabo played to acclaim in Cannes in 2007, Chung’s next two films, Lucky Life and Abigail Harm, were little seen. “Those films are, I’d say, avant garde,” he says cautiously. They were made under the influence, he says, of “the more minimal film-makers” – heavyweight auteurs such as Tarkovsky, Abbas Kiarostami, Taiwan’s Hou Hsiao-hsien. “I still love their films but, to be honest, I had to come to a realisation that that was maybe not what I was suited for. These days I love watching Billy Wilder. I’m not saying the arthouse stuff is self-serious, but I needed to get out of my head a little bit and not treat films so seriously.”

Chung nearly gave up directing after those films, but Minari emerged from a reassessment of what mattered to him about cinema. “I think of my friends back home in Arkansas, and all the movies we watched together, and I guess that’s more the audience that I deeply wanted to connect with.”

While Minari is about immigrants arriving in an unfamiliar world, the film shows a light touch in its treatment of racial and cultural difference. The Yi children face what we would now call microaggressions from local kids, but these are presented as essentially benign in their cluelessness. This is true to his experience, Chung says. “I grew up feeling like the main obstacles that we were trying to overcome had more to do with how we survive together as a family, and less to do with external relationships that we had with the community. Racism did exist and I’ve experienced some horrific incidents, but when I think about those days, it’s more about farming and the difficulties of trying to love each other.”

Minari is a film in an eminently American tradition – a drama about taming the soil, like so many westerns – so there has been some controversy that its Golden Globes category was not best film, but best foreign language film. A year after Korean smash Parasite triumphed at the Oscars, this seems all the stranger. “There’s no easy answer,” Chung says diplomatically when we talk the week before his win. “A lot of times we have these categories that maybe don’t fit the reality of human experience and human identity. I’m completely sympathetic to what a lot of people in my community are saying – that often as Asian Americans we’re made to feel more foreign than we internally feel ourselves.”

Now signed up to direct a live-action remake of the Japanese anime film Your Name, Chung is part of a new generation of Asian and Asian American directors (Cathy Yan, Lulu Wang, Chloé Zhao) making a serious impact in the US mainstream. “I feel encouraged by it,” he says. “It’s not just Asian, but black and Middle Eastern film-makers, and as long as we see more and more, that really helps us understand this country better, and humanity better. I hope Minari adds to that.”

Minari is coming soon to the UK and Ireland. For details see altitude.film