TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Last Sunday, the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film went to "Minari," which was written and directed by our guest, Lee Isaac Chung. "Minari" is in select theaters and available on-demand. Lee Isaac Chung spoke with FRESH AIR guest interviewer Arun Venugopal, who's a host and senior producer at WNYC in New York.
ARUN VENUGOPAL, BYLINE: The film "Minari" tells the story of Jacob Yi, a man who relocates his family of four from California to rural Arkansas in the 1980s so he can pursue his dream of being a farmer. He and his wife, Monica, are Korean immigrants, and their marriage is unraveling. At times, his attempt to start a farm seems like an act of love or intense passion, and at others, utterly quixotic and self-destructive. And it's unclear whether he'll be able to hold his family together in the face of personal struggles, dwindling savings and cultural isolation.
"Minari" is an indie film and arrives in a wave of considerable excitement as well as controversy. The movie premiered to great acclaim at Sundance in January of 2020 but was also blocked from competing for the Best Picture Award at the Golden Globes because it's primarily in Korean, rather than English. So it had to compete as a foreign language film, although it was financed and distributed by American companies. And the story is very much American. Its director, our guest, Lee Isaac Chung, is also American. Chung's first film, "Munyurangabo," came out in 2007 and was set in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide. In addition to directing "Minari," he also wrote the screenplay, which is loosely based on his own life.
Lee Isaac Chung, welcome to FRESH AIR.
LEE ISAAC CHUNG: Thanks so much, Arun. I'm just so impressed with how well you pronounced "Minari" and "Munyurangabo."
VENUGOPAL: Excellent. Score. I got some points for the pronouncers, at least so far.
CHUNG: I appreciate that.
VENUGOPAL: Your family is Korean. And you yourself grew up in rural Arkansas. What prompted you to start writing the screenplay?
CHUNG: You know, honestly, I kind of had this idea that I would make a film about this someday in my life. And I had that thought early on when I was going to film school, but I just never felt ready for it. And it wasn't until about 2018. I had signed on to start teaching somewhere in Korea. And I figured, I only have a few months before that job begins in which I could write something and have maybe one last go at writing a screenplay. And that naturally led me to the idea of picking up this story of what it was like when we moved to that farm in Arkansas.
And just looking at the timeline of it, like, my dad was basically the same age that I am now when he did that. And my daughter is the same age that I was when we moved to the farm. So something about that timing seemed just right, that I could understand his perspective a little better and understand my daughter's perspective or see the world a little bit more through her eyes.
VENUGOPAL: This started out as a story you wanted to tell your daughter, didn't it?
CHUNG: It did. I took some time off after I made my previous feature film, "Abigail Harm." And I was just trying to reassess what I wanted to do with my next film. And my daughter was born in that time. And I just felt an increasing amount of pressure after she was born that I wanted to do something that I'd be proud of, like, proud of leaving her and proud of her watching in the future. And yeah, somehow this idea made me feel like if I can tell this story right, then it's something that she could see and understand her own history in a way.
VENUGOPAL: So once you established that this is something you want to do - make something for your daughter - how did you set out on this path that arrived at this particular film?
CHUNG: I was on this weird, wild goose chase where I thought I might try to adapt a Willa Cather book. And if you don't know Willa Cather, she was an author in the early 1900s. And for a while, she wrote these books about New York high society. And I think she didn't feel very fulfilled about that. And then at one point in her life, somebody recommended to her that she should write a book about her own upbringing in Nebraska because she grew up kind of in the Great Plains. And the resulting books ended up being so personal and so beautiful about her own experiences growing up in Nebraska that she said later in life that her life really began when she stopped admiring. So she stopped admiring all these authors and trying to emulate them. And instead, she started to remember.
I was so inspired by that quote that I just sat down in the library, the local library here, and I started to write down about 80 memories. I didn't set out to just write 80, but that's how many just flowed out of me in one session. I spent the whole afternoon just writing memory after memory. One memory would lead to another. And these were little visual memories, little details that I remember from the past. And once I had this set of memories, I realized that there was an arc of a story there - this family showing up in the middle of nowhere, really, with the dad not having told anyone in the family that he was going to buy this farmland. And this is something that came from real life. And ultimately, a patch of minari, this Korean plant that the grandmother plants, that my grandmother planted, that ended up being the only thing that really thrived on that farm. So once I had those two poles in mind of where the story starts and where the story ends, I just started to shape all the memories together into a narrative.
VENUGOPAL: The most compelling character in my mind is the grandmother played by Youn Yuh-jung. And, you know, she's this really amazing, vivacious character. She's kind of crass. And she's just this delightful person. She arrives from Korea, I guess, you know, maybe midway or not even that far into the film. She arrives on the farm. She kind of helps the family sort of, I guess, get by. In narrative terms, what purpose does she serve?
CHUNG: I guess in narrative terms, for me, she's someone who really comes and throws into disarray all the different concerns that the family has. And she's the one who arrives and begins to introduce a new way of looking at things. And that's kind of what I wanted for her. She's not an intellectual person. And she's not someone who is very religious about things or ideological.
And to me, I've always been drawn to characters like this in literature and in movies, kind of the fool, in a way. I don't want to say that she's a fool. But we think of this person as being very crass and not really having much wisdom in some sense, but really, they are the ones who figured life out. And there's an author I love, Flannery O'Connor. She often has these moments of real grace and wisdom that erupt out of characters who you just don't expect would bring that sort of thing. So that's kind of the purpose I wanted her to have in this film.
VENUGOPAL: In many ways, the film or the themes of the film kind of emerge from her relationship with her grandson, this little boy played by Alan Kim, who is kind of thrown off and at times just really annoyed by her. I mean, she uses foul language. She calls, you know, she says, like, oh, you little bastards. And she has a scent - I guess you could say - that he finds off-putting. And he says things about that, which...
CHUNG: Smells like Korea.
VENUGOPAL: ...Grown up would be really offensive. But in some ways, it's sort of like he serves like the id of the film by saying these kinds of things that seem basically racist but are coming from a kid's mouth. And was that also drawing from stuff you've seen personally or developed during the process of writing the script?
CHUNG: Oh, yeah, definitely. I mean, she's also bringing a sense of history to the family is the way I feel. I mean, this family is trying to move into the future, but she really carries this weight of the past in a way that's, I guess, counterintuitive. But she's bringing the old country in a way. And that kind of comes from personal life.
Like, my sister and I, we were two happy-go-lucky kids in Arkansas. And my mom had to start working as a chicken sexer for financial reasons. And we couldn't just keep going to the workplace with them. We need somebody to watch us. So my parents brought my grandmother over from Korea. And at first, she was kind of a shock to our senses. She just didn't fit in with our conceptions of what a grandmother should be and also our conception of what even Korean culture was. After everything my parents were teaching us about Korean culture, about being respectful and all these things, you know, here came my grandmother, who is very crass and wanted to teach us how to gamble.
And, you know, there was just something about that relationship that was both very unsettling for me as a kid, but also ended up proving to be just what I needed to survive. I always look back on those years in my childhood, and I think she brought so much joy and happiness to our lives. And that's what I hope she does in this film.
VENUGOPAL: Yeah, she's this really vibrant character, but is kind of mentioned offhandedly by Monica, the wife. The grandmother lost her husband, Monica's father, during the war, the Korean War. And this reminded me of something. In her memoir, "Minor Feelings," the Korean American writer Cathy Park Hong recounts a scene from her first week in college at Oberlin when her dad meets her roommate's dad, who asks where they're from. And Hong's dad replies, South Korea. The roommate's dad said, oh, I fought in the Korean War. And Hong's father smiles, and he says nothing. And this upsets Hong, who's a first-year college student. She's really embarrassed. She gets angry at her dad later and calls him rude for not picking up the thread of this conversation. And he snaps, you know, should I thank your roommate's father for that war? Is that what you wanted?
And by and by, we learned how the family story has been shaped by the war, by all the violence, the indignities at the hands of American soldiers. And it really made me think watching your film as well. You know, there is so much history and pain buried right beneath the surface of these stories, isn't there? And just so much that lies unspoken in these families.
CHUNG: Yeah. You know, there was a scene that we had in this film one point where we kind of find out that the reason Jacob is so obsessed with getting land is because he had lost some land during the Korean War. And that was a thread we had going through the film at some point. But I just felt like that wasn't necessary for the story because it comes out in other ways. But, yeah, that history is really complex. And I wouldn't want to go all the way and say, you know, Americans committed atrocities and all those things. It's a lot more complex than that. For instance, my dad is hoping to arrange a screening in Colorado for Korean War vets just because he wants to kind of support that community.
But when I look back now as an adult, I'm able to see my mom and grandmother in a different way that I didn't understand as a kid. You know, my mom grew up without a father because he died in the Korean War. And my grandmother, her life was completely upended because of that. She was 20 years old. Her husband died. And she had a young daughter. She had to figure out how to raise her. And she ended up moving with my mom out to Incheon, which is on the coast, which is ironically where I ended up living and teaching. And I would see the areas in which my grandmother and mother lived. My grandmother would go out into the mudflats there and start gathering shellfish just so that the family could survive. And her whole life was almost defined by that war and that tragedy.
The fact that she came over to the U.S. to help my mom - it's - my mom was her only child. And my grandmother sold all of her possessions in Korea. She sold this store that she was running with another Korean War widow and came over to the U.S. and kind of lived a life of anonymity. She never learned the language. She suffered a stroke. She passed away. And she just kind of gave her life over to helping us not face that sort of suffering. Excuse me. With this film, one of the things that - sorry, Arun. I don't want to be completely overwhelmed here. Yeah.
VENUGOPAL: No. It's OK. Take a second here. I mean, you know, one thing that this film has clearly touched on - clearly, this film has affected a lot of people. And, I mean, I suppose it brings out a lot, doesn't it?
CHUNG: Yeah. Well, you're seeing me get - you're hearing me get emotional now. You can imagine what I was like on set on some days filming some of the scenes.
VENUGOPAL: Is that right?
CHUNG: Yeah, it was tough. I guess - I just hope that this film would somehow capture who she was, you know, someone who is invisible. I would hope that she would be seen, if that makes sense.
GROSS: We're listening to the interview our guest interviewer, Arun Venugopal, recorded with Lee Isaac Chung, the writer and director of the new film "Minari," which just won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film. We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview our guest interviewer, Arun Venugopal, recorded with Lee Isaac Chung, the writer and director of the new semiautobiographical film "Minari." It just won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film. When we left off, Lee Isaac Chung was talking about his grandmother, who inspired the character of the grandmother in the film.
VENUGOPAL: I think this has been not just for viewers who are - you know, a lot of people watch this film, and it really breaks them up. And it's not just, you know, the audience; it's also clearly the people who were part of this film - not just you, but the cast members who I think have gotten often very emotional trying to articulate the power of this film and the process. So you've been seeing the people you've been working with for a long time. I guess you're very choked up about these themes.
CHUNG: (Laughter) Yeah.
VENUGOPAL: I'm just kind of wondering what is it that you think really kind of affects them so deeply about this process and about this film?
CHUNG: I can tell you what I don't think it is, and maybe I'll go into what I think it might be. I don't think it's about identity. I don't think it's about us, you know, as Asian Americans expressing who we are and recognizing that. But I think it's really about the relationships that we have in our own personal stories. Like, that story of immigration, what often gets overlooked in that story is the fact that a lot of that is happening due to the feeling of love, that feeling of a desire to sacrifice for each other. And immigration stories are family stories.
You know, honestly, I've seen people who aren't Korean immigrants work on this film and also feel choked up and feel emotional about it because they remember their own families. Any time there's a story about that sort of sacrifice, that sort of desire to help one another and to understand each other, I've been kind of feeling like that's been what's been driving out emotional responses. And it's obviously an emotional thing for me. I honestly have - feel like I'm getting tired of trying to hold it together sometimes because making a film is a difficult thing, and even trying to talk about the film in interviews and all those things, it's been difficult for me because this one just hit so close to home.
And at the same time, like, I want to be able to communicate clearly. I want to be able to direct clearly and lead a crew and actors in a very clear way. And that's been the unique challenge of this film, to try to be measured and to be balanced and, at the same time, to let it be personal.
VENUGOPAL: One thing that really, I think, affected people who've seen the film was when she arrives, the grandmother, she kind of hands over these bags of food and, like, dried anchovies and red chili powder to her daughter, who just - you know, just bursts into tears at just the visceral, like, you know, impact of, like, getting this thing which she has not tasted or smelled in so long. Did you expect people to - I guess, to feel so strongly about something which is almost kind of, like, a little quick moment in the film like that?
CHUNG: I didn't. When I was writing that scene, I wrote it that the grandmother brings anchovies and pepper flakes. And as I was writing, the mother character began to cry. And I thought it was funny that she's crying about anchovies, and that's how the line kind of came in. You know, you're crying over anchovies? And I just found it to be a funny moment that was surprising. It didn't happen in my real life, but it's just something that came about in the writing. And it felt so true and so human and something that expresses a lot of where Monica, the mother, is emotionally, how she's been feeling, everything that's been pent up inside of her as she's missing home.
So I left it in there. I didn't know if anybody would really connect to it. But I've been surprised that lots of people have been crying about the anchovies, (laughter) joining in with her. And that's been a real joy because it's not just the Koreans or the kids of immigrants, but it seems like everybody kind of understands that feeling. Food is powerful. You know, that really hits so close to home for all of us.
VENUGOPAL: So tell us about the main character, Jacob Yi. Who is he to you?
CHUNG: To me, he's really a complex character, someone who is quite heroic in his motivations and in his struggles. But he's also very conflicted inside, and there's no clear heroism to what he's doing as well. I love characters like that. I think often the films I've seen of people trying to make it in the West, they tend to - they don't always have that kind of complexity, I would say. So with him, I was wanting to really explore that.
And that comes from a very personal place as well. I don't want to say that Jacob is my father because, you know, I really fictionalized him. And I think what my dad did in my life, I just consider him a real hero. But a lot of what's in Jacob is actually me, myself, me wrestling with my own tendencies and problems and problematic ways of viewing the world. And at the same time, I'm trying to give that character some grace and trying not to judge that character.
GROSS: We're listening to the interview our guest interviewer Arun Venugopal recorded with Lee Isaac Chung, the writer and director of the new semiautobiographical film "Minari." It's playing in select theaters and is available on demand. We'll hear more of their interview after a break. And Maureen Corrigan will review Kazuo Ishiguro's new novel, which Maureen says is a masterpiece. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with more of our interview with Lee Isaac Chung, the writer and director of the new film "Minari." It just won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film. It also won the top jury prize and top audience prize at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. It's about a Korean American family that moves to rural Arkansas because the father, played by Steven Yeun, dreams of being a farmer. The mother wonders if they'll have enough money to live as they and their two children try to adjust to living in a trailer home on a plot of land far from everything.
The mother's mother moves from South Korea to try to help out with the children while the parents' marriage seems to be falling apart. "Minari" is loosely based on Lee Isaac Chung's own experiences growing up. He started writing the screenplay by making a list of every memory he could think of from his childhood. Let's go back to the interview he recorded with FRESH AIR guest interviewer Arun Venugopal.
VENUGOPAL: What were some of the memories on that first list that you came up with?
CHUNG: On that first list that I made, it ranged from very broad memories to also very detailed ones. For instance, I remembered that my grandmother, when she came from Korea, she brought all this herbal medicine and just how much that was the source of my first frustration over my grandmother and her arrival, the fact that she brought this terrible brown juice to me. So I had memories like that. I had memories of just even something simple, like the lunch pail that my mom and dad would carry. That lunch pail, I made sure that we would find the exact brand, the exact style for this film.
And the reason why it stood out to me was that that lunch pail is something that they would take food with them to the workplace. And then sometimes we would come back home with baby chickens that were saved from destruction in that lunch pail. I kind of had a scene where the kids have brought these chickens back in the lunch pail. We ended up cutting that for time. You just end up seeing them with the chickens at home. But, you know, memories like that stood out to me as well.
VENUGOPAL: At first, you hesitated about telling your family about the movie. Why?
CHUNG: Yeah. That's right. I was incredibly nervous about them finding out what I'm doing. They're private people. And I felt like I might be doing an injustice in some ways by writing a story about them and trying to represent their perspectives and stuff without letting them write it, not giving them the agency to write it. But I just felt this real need to tell this story. So I was working on it. I figured, I'll tell them one day. If this film gets made, I'll tell them. But for now, I'm just - personally, I need to write this script. So I wrote it. And I didn't tell them anything. Every now and then, I would talk to my mom and kind of ask her some probing questions like...
CHUNG: ...You know, why did grandma bring money from Korea? How did she get that money, you know? I would ask all these little details. And I remember my mom would say, you're really taking an interest in your past.
CHUNG: And I think they were getting suspicious. And so once we got financing to make this film, I just told my parents, it looks like I can make another film. I got financing. They were more happy about that. They didn't care what the film's about. They're just glad that I'm working. I'm going to do something.
VENUGOPAL: Right, you can pay the bills.
CHUNG: And they found out that Youn Yuh-jung, the actress, is on board. And she is their favorite actor. Like...
VENUGOPAL: She's a big deal, isn't she?
CHUNG: She's a huge deal. And she was always in our homes. You know, when we were growing up, she's in every favorite television show. So my mom just thought, you finally made it. This is great. And then she asked, so what is she playing? And I said, well, she's this grandmother. And then I told them, yeah, and there's a mom and a dad. And there are two kids. And, yeah, they live in a trailer home. I didn't tell them that this is our family's story. But obviously, my mom had started to piece things together. And I think it made my parents even more nervous that I was not coming completely clean to them, that I would not tell them that this is our story.
VENUGOPAL: It's the cover-up...
CHUNG: Exactly (laughter).
VENUGOPAL: ...It's not the crime, it's the cover-up.
CHUNG: So they were super concerned until Thanksgiving of 2019. We had finished the cut. And I just decided I have to get this out of the way and finally show them. And I was a nervous wreck. I had no idea what they would think. They came from Colorado to California. And we watched the film together. And slowly, I just started to see my mom starting to weep, my sister, my dad. And it just felt like it was such a cathartic experience for all of us. It was really special, really incredible. And my sister, she still makes fun of me. She said that the way that I was acting, it was like I committed a crime, the fact that I wasn't telling them what this film was. So they really were expecting a terrible, terrible film about our family. But everyone was super relieved after they watched the film.
VENUGOPAL: Do they ever tell you why they cried?
CHUNG: We've kind of talked around it. And so I try to piece things together. But everybody has a different reason, I feel. Like, my mother, she was telling me that she was unable - she never was able to see my grandmother in her dreams. She said that she was always jealous of me because I would always see my grandma in my dreams. And she said, finally, after watching this film, she could see my grandma in her dreams.
CHUNG: That was so special. And for my sister, she said that she had just blocked out so much from that time because she found it to be pretty difficult. But she loved seeing it in beauty, in the beauty of what we had in that time.
VENUGOPAL: While you're shooting the film, your dad wanted to actually visit the set. And you said no, didn't you?
CHUNG: I did, yeah. And I felt so bad about that because he genuinely wanted to come and help. And I was so stressed already on set. We had, like, 25 days. And there's, like, no room for error. I just felt like every day was a real battle. And I just thought, if I had my dad there, it would be another concern that I would have of making sure that he feels all right and that I'm not doing anything that's going to dishonor him and, you know, all these different worries that I knew I would have.
So I just said, please, no. Just let me finish this, and I'll show you later. And that was tough because I felt like that kind of hurt his feelings a bit. He didn't say that it did. But I also knew that, you know, he's a fan of Youn Yuh-jung and wanted to see me working with her and just wanted to be in that environment. And we were filming very close to where our actual farm is in Arkansas. So there's no excuse for me not to invite him to come. And he actually supplied the minari for us.
VENUGOPAL: Oh, wow. The seeds that turn into these plants growing on the water, the banks of the stream.
CHUNG: Exactly. In a symbolic way, I mean, my dad was basically being my grandma. He was being the one showing love and sacrifice and doing hard work for me on this film. And, you know, I didn't let him come onto the set. And he totally understands now. I think he understands how stressful that entire experience was now.
VENUGOPAL: From the beginning, is this the title that you chose for the screenplay and for the film?
CHUNG: It was. When I was doing that exercise of writing down all the memories, the last thing that I came to was that little patch of minari that my grandmother and I would go to, that my grandmother would tend. And I would throw rocks at snakes. And that's kind of how the snakes started coming into the story. And once I had that memory, it just dawned on me that this is what the name of the film is going to have to be. And I thought, I'm not going to translate to English. I'm just going to let it be what it is. And if it's ever made, then I guess people will have to learn how to say the word if they want to see it.
And, yeah, I just thought, there's something so poetic about the plant as well. It's a hardy plant. It kind of grows in places where you can't grow anything else. It can take root in very poor soil conditions. And what it ends up doing is it actually revitalizes the soil. And it cleans up the water. It has a purifying effect. And so I thought there's a poetic resonance there that this plant speaks to.
GROSS: We're listening to the interview our guest interviewer Arun Venugopal recorded with Lee Isaac Chung, the writer and director of the new film "Minari," which just won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film. It's in select theaters and available on demand. We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF VITO LITURRI TRIO'S "JUST A DREAMER")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview our guest interviewer Arun Venugopal recorded with Lee Isaac Chung, the writer and director of the new semiautobiographical film "Minari." It just won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film.
VENUGOPAL: You talked about your dad really wanting to pick up and move to America when he was younger. What shaped his idea of this country when he was growing up?
CHUNG: He was living in Seoul. He's from the countryside. And he ended up living in Seoul. And he was working as a sock factory manager. And, you know, those settings are not that great for work. But what he would do is he would save up money. He'd go to the dollar theaters in this area called Jongno. It's kind of like the cinema center of Korea. And he would go to the cheapest movie houses where these film prints that have played in all the expensive theaters would finally end up and do their last runs. And he told me every film he saw, it looked like it was raining because the film print was so scratched up. So he thought America was always rainy. I think he's joking about it. But he'd watch those films. And he loved films like "Giant," "Big Country," "East Of Eden," "Ben-Hur."
He felt like, if there is a place where movies like this can come from - and, you know, the land you see in those films, it just seems so expansive, full of opportunity. He wanted to go there. So pretty early on, he had decided he's going to make a way to America one day. And after he married my mom, that's what he set out to do. And my mom stayed in Korea for a couple of years as my dad moved to America on his own and really tried to find a living. And he ended up in that job of chicken sexing. And that's what brought my mom and sister over. And shortly after, I was born.
VENUGOPAL: And chicken sexing, as you explained in the film - but, I suppose, for anybody who's not familiar with the term - is basically trying to determine what - whether a chick is male or female. And if it's female, you keep it, right?
CHUNG: Yeah. That's right. Sometimes you keep the males in some situations. But a lot of times, the males have no use. And that was kind of an idea that stuck with me when I was a kid. I remember going to work with my parents and hearing that the males have no use and so they're thrown out. And you kind of see that creeping up in the film in some of the dialogue. But it's a hard job. It's very - it's done in very dusty conditions. It's loud. Baby chickens are really loud. And chicken sexers will sit there for many hours going through thousands of baby chickens. And they're they're able to separate male and female with about 99% accuracy. And it's not as easy as you would think. Chickens don't have like a clear distinction in their genitals. It's like you're just recognizing patterns and ultimately going on intuition. And so it takes many months for chicken sexers to learn how to decipher the differences.
VENUGOPAL: Did your dad ever tell you how he how he could tell the male chicks from the female ones?
CHUNG: Yeah. I remember one day, my sister and I, we went to the workplace. And he was showing us different cloacas or vents of these chickens and trying to show us, you know, this pattern is shiny or this has so many bumps. And ultimately, he could not tell us why it's male or female. He just would say, I just know. And that just shows me now that what he had trained was intuition. There was this writer, the psychologist who ended up writing about chicken sexing, how it's one of those few jobs that are so rooted in intuition that it's a mystery that the brain can actually work in that way, that it can't describe how it works, but people just know after they've been trained. Yeah.
CHUNG: What's really interesting is that your first film is - you shot it in Rwanda, didn't you?
CHUNG: I did. Yeah. I was drawn to that idea of making films in other places. That particular one I didn't really like look at a map and point to Rwanda randomly. My wife was doing some volunteer work over there. She's a therapist. And she was training counselors. And she wanted me to go with her one summer. And she asked me to figure out something that I might do while I'm there. It was honestly - it started as a class project. We were just wanting to teach filmmaking and make a film for local audiences.
VENUGOPAL: And the film that came out of that was called "Munyurangabo." Is that the correct pronunciation?
CHUNG: That's correct, yeah.
VENUGOPAL: And "Munyurangabo," it's set in Rwanda. It depicts the friendship between two boys in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide. Roger Ebert called it a masterpiece, called your film a masterpiece. And as a kid who grew up in the U.S. in rural Arkansas, what drew you to the Rwanda genocide?
CHUNG: Of course, the themes that I saw happening in Rwanda, I felt like there was a lot of proximity to South Korea as I was researching and thinking about the country.
VENUGOPAL: What do you mean by that?
CHUNG: I almost felt like there is some element of South Korea and North Korea playing itself out again. And, you know, that - the genocide, there's a lot that comes from external categorizations. The history - if you look at the history of Hutu versus Tutsi, I mean, that distinction was kind of put there by colonial powers.
VENUGOPAL: Imperialists, yeah.
CHUNG: Yeah, in the early 1900s. So I thought that was - that was also something that I kind of felt like we as Koreans relate to, like the way in which Korea was almost a place where a lot of these geopolitical events were just being staged in some way. And ultimately, it's about families being torn apart and families who are losing each other. And that element of it really spoke to me. So it's honestly one of my favorite things that I ever did, was going over there and teaching and making that film together with people.
VENUGOPAL: And your relationship with Rwanda continues, I guess, in your work mentoring young Rwandan filmmakers. What do you talk to them about as far as handling the personal in their work?
CHUNG: When it comes to the things that I do talk with them about, I try to - I just want them to have agency, really, to tell their own stories. I don't want them to fall into the traps of having to speak to the West, if that makes sense, to put their focus on the West and figure out how - you know, will my project get financed if I speak to - if I center it towards a Western audience? That sort of thing. I just want them to be true, basically. I want them to be true to their own experiences and to tell a story on their own terms, the way that they want to tell a story.
And it's pretty tricky. A lot of a lot of filmmakers in countries like Rwanda, funding and financing comes from Western sources. So there are expectations that I think these sources often put on these filmmakers that you have to tell a story in this way or, you know, it's an interesting story if you talk about these certain issues. I think there's this pressure there that maybe we don't realize in the West that we often put on storytellers in other countries, to appease us as an audience. And I kind of want people to feel free from that.
VENUGOPAL: Lee Isaac Chung, thanks for joining us.
CHUNG: Thank you, Arun. This was a great conversation.
GROSS: Lee Isaac Chung's new film "Minari" is now in select theaters and is available on demand on all digital platforms. He spoke with FRESH AIR guest interviewer Arun Venugopal, who's a host and senior reporter at WNYC in New York.
After we take a short break, Maureen Corrigan will review Kazuo Ishiguro's new novel "Klara And The Sun." Maureen says it's one of the most affecting and profound novels Ishiguro has written. This is FRESH AIR.
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