His self-produced debut feature Munyurangabo (2007), about the friendship of two boys in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide, premiered at Cannes to great acclaim. A decade later and on the verge of retiring from film-making, Chung was inspired by Willa Cather’s writing about her Nebraska roots.
He started compiling a list of recollections from his own rural upbringing and found himself noting countless “little visual memories, little details,” including the titular herb: “My grandmother brought over minari seeds from Korea and we planted those seeds in this little creek bed in Arkasas.” – “Once I had this set of memories, I realized that there was an arc of a story there.”
The Korean War and its lingering impact on Korean immigrants (including Chung’s family) originally formed “the thread we had going through the film,” but direct allusions were gradually eliminated, as he refocused on more general themes: “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. … And immigration stories are family stories.”
His own family is intensely private, and Chung kept the film project secret from them until the final stages. Watching it for the first time together “was such a cathartic experience for all of us.” His father’s response was to plan a screening for American veterans of the Korean War, “just because he wants to kind of support that community.”
The film was ineligible for ‘Best Motion Picture – Drama’ at the Golden Globes due to the rule that any film with <50% of its dialogue in English must be considered a Foreign Language Film. The exclusion was controversial. Lulu Wang, whose film The Farewell was subject to the same rule the previous year, tweeted, “I have not seen a more American film than #Minari this year. It’s a story about an immigrant family, IN America, pursuing the American dream. We really need to change these antiquated rules that characterize American as only English-speaking.”
“Minari is a story of the American Dream. But Chung’s brilliance is in how he adds depth and complexity to those foundational ideas – it’s in the spaces in between that we find love, loss, hope, and regret.” Clarisse Loughrey, Independent