“Minari”: This History-Making Movie Is One of the Titles to Beat at the Oscars

Photo Courtesy: A24

Minari’s writer and director, Lee Isaac Chung, had wanted to make this movie since he was in film school. The feature, which has six Oscar nominations and is available for rent on video on demand, tells the story of a Korean-American family that moves from California to Arkansas in the 1980s. The family relocates to follow Jacob’s (Steven Yeun) dream: He wants to change careers as a chicken-sexing expert and become a farmer. Jacob’s wife, Monica (Yeri Han), is not completely on board with the idea. Monica’s mom, the foul-mouthed Soonja (Yuh-jung Youn), leaves Korea and moves in with the family to help take care of the children: the responsible Anne (Noel Cho) and the precocious 7-year-old David (Alan Kim).

Chung had been wanting to tell the story of how life had been when his own South Korean family moved to a farm in Arkansas when he was a kid. He finally wrote Minari’s screenplay in 2018, when he was almost the same age his dad was when they moved to Arkansas. Chung, whose last feature film as a director had been 2012’s Abigail Harm, had become a dad since. He felt the pressure to leave his daughter something he’d be proud of, and something that helped her understand the story of her own family.

"Writing Minari had the feeling of a last-ditch effort because what I was thinking was: if I could leave behind one story for my daughter to see, what would I want it to be?" Chung says in the film’s production notes. "I wrote down eighty visual memories from when I was right around my daughter’s age. They ranged from my parents’ heated arguments in Arkansas to a man who worked for my father dragging a cross around town, to my grandmother burning down half our farm. Looking through them I thought, maybe this is the story I’ve wanted to tell all along."

Even though Chung drew from his own memories, the filmmaker says the movie is not a factual representation of his childhood. Jacob and Monica are not his parents. But finding the character of David helped him tell the story.

Once he wrote the script, Chung sent it to actor Steven Yeun. The Walking Dead and Burning’s Korean-American star is actually Chung’s cousin-in-law; Yeun is married to Joana Pak, one of Chung’s cousins.

"I’ve read some other things in this vein and most just touch on the surface, so I honestly didn’t expect I’d be that interested," the actor says in the movie's production notes. "But I was blown away by the story’s simplicity and truthfulness. Reading Minari, I realized what was missing from other things on this topic: the feeling that the story is coming from an intrinsic, relatable humanity rather than a narrow identity."

After being captured by the story, Yeun sent the screenplay to producer Christina Oh (The Last Black Man in San Francisco) of Plan B, Brad Pitt’s production company. Oh and Yeun had worked together on Bong Joon-ho’s Okja. Plan B partnered with A24, and the movie began shooting in the summer of 2019 just outside Tulsa, Oklahoma, close to the Arkansas border.