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‘We Have the Same Pain and the Same Joy.’ Minari Director Lee Isaac Chung on the Universality of His Golden-Globe Winning Film

7 minute read

One of the most memorable moments of Sunday night’s Golden Globes ceremony was when Lee Isaac Chung’s daughter jumped into his arms. After Gal Gadot announced that his movie Minari had won the award for best foreign language film, his young daughter wrapped him in a bear hug, shook his neck euphorically and yelled, “I prayed! I prayed!”

With any luck, the viral moment will not be the apex of Minari‘s awards season run, but just the start of it. Minari, which is based on Chung’s own experiences as the son of Korean immigrants who moved to rural Arkansas to start a farm growing Korean vegetables, has received rave reviews and seems poised for even more recognition. Chung talked to TIME about growing up in Arkansas, the cultural power of food and the Globes controversy. Here are excerpts of the conversation.

TIME: Farming has been a huge part of the Asian-American experience, but many people are not familiar with that history. Did you initially believe that a movie on that subject could resonate so widely?

Chung: I used to not trust that specificity about my own self: I didn’t think it would be interesting to people. Having parents who are chicken sexers—I had trouble explaining that to kids at school! The fact we were able to get the film financed felt like a miracle. Now, to see the reception of people in all walks of life saying they see themselves in the story somehow—it almost shrinks the world a little bit. We all go through these specific circumstances, but there’s something at the heart of our lives that we’re all the same in some way; we have the same pain and the same joy.

At the same time, I worried about what my farmer friends would say if they saw this film, as well as Korean-American immigrants. I wanted to make sure I was being authentic and accurate, but also going to the level that the story needs to work now and years from now. My mind was in all of those places.

The film is based on your parents’ story. Do you know why they moved to the U.S.?

When my dad was in junior high, all these American films started to be introduced into Korea for the first time. My dad started to watch westerns at dollar cinemas in Seoul and felt like America was a miraculous place. His family had lost a lot of land during the Korean War and the Japanese occupation. That affected him a lot as a kid. He always felt like he needed to come to the U.S. and get land. It’s an old Hollywood pioneer story he was working on.

The film’s characters arrive in Arkansas in the wake of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which spurred a huge increase in Asian-American immigration. Is that part of your family history as well?

I remember reading all about that in an Asian-American history course in college and realizing, “Oh, this is how we were able to come.” Culturally speaking, I feel like a lot of us who grew up around that time were seeing a shift in the public perception of what Asians and Asian-Americans were. Those of us who were now speaking English perfectly—that might not have been a thing 10 years earlier.

Where I lived, I think we started off with maybe 10 Koreans in that area, and they were all chicken sexers. My dad started the first Korean church there. Year after year, the numbers would just grow. The idea that it was all caused by a law didn’t dawn on me until much later. You never realize what the geopolitical things are, you just live through them.

Do you remember the first time you realized you were different from your predominantly white peers in Arkansas?

On my first day of school, the question I kept hearing all day long is, “why is your face so flat?” I’d never heard that question or ever thought about my face being different. By the 4th or 5th time I was asked, I knew there was something strange about who I was compared to who all these kids are. Of course, I became great friends with all these guys. But the initial moment was a shock to my system.

Do you remember feeling isolated while growing up?

I have mixed feelings about all the isolation I may have felt. It was real. But from my own perspective, I don’t know how much of it is because of my Asian-American identity and how much of it is just teenage angst and loneliness. Maybe that’s part of being Asian American: you’re always questioning that aspect of your own perception. I always tend to gravitate toward the idea of things being human: that this isolation I feel as an Asian American, even though it’s real, other people have it too in their own way. That’s something I wanted to tap into with Minari as well: to show those connections rather than just isolate.

Minari ties food very closely to identity. How do you believe the two are connected?

I didn’t have much of a taste for Korean food growing up: I was over the moon about Mexican food. And I remember the first time my sister went to school, my mom made a lunch box full of gimbap for her. Slowly, the kids noticed what she was eating and made fun of her, and she started to throw this gimbap away and would not tell my mom. It became a kind of running joke in our family, but one obviously based on some heartache, where my mom knew not to make Korean food for us because it was just going to get thrown out.

I look back on that with this feeling of sorrow. It must have been tough for my parents to hear these things: they went through such pains to preserve Korean food culture. It probably brought them this sense of home and identity.

It was only when I got to college that I started to get into Korean food. All of a sudden my palette opened up to it, and anytime I went home, I couldn’t get enough of it. I realized I had done my mom a great injustice of always saying, “this food is no good.”

What is your relationship to Korean food now?

Nowadays, Korean food is the only thing that I can eat, and it cheers me up. It’s inexpressible, really; I don’t know how it’s tied to identity or anything. But when I eat it I do feel as though this is the food that has nourished my ancestors and what has made this body through evolution and all these different things.

Minari won best foreign language film at the Golden Globes in February. But how did you feel about the Golden Globes rule that made Minari ineligible for best picture because half of the dialogue is not in English, considering the film was shot entirely in the U.S. and created by Americans?

It did strike me as odd. Their category of “foreign” seems to be set upon language and not geography, and that seems strange to me given our country. As a thought experiment, I wonder what if there was a Native American story in which they’re speaking in their language? How would that be categorized? This is the sort of thing that can awaken some of the traumas that we have as Asian Americans. On the other hand, I’m trying not to let the awards or talk of categories define the film or why I want people to watch it. I feel as though the family in this film isn’t too concerned about the way other people categorize them.

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