A small controversy can bring a film into the spotlight and make it a must-see.
Lee Isaac Chung’s “Minari” (December 11, A24) has just received a big fat Christmas gift from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, whose rules forced producers to submit the drama of Korean immigrants in the foreign language category of Golden Globe, a situation identical to that of Lulu Wang “The Farewell” at the 2020 Globe. Controversy erupted from Wang and others, because this means that the film will not compete for the Best Drama Film, although its actors are eligible in the categories performance.
So, why is this good?
Most Oscar voters have never heard of “Minari”. After the movie broke out at Sundance 2020 with rave reviews and the U.S. Dramatic Jury Grand Prix and the U.S. Dramatic Audience Award, A24 was juggling the launch options, knowing that despite all his best efforts, the independent box office hit “The Farewell” ($ 17.7 million domestically) was never nominated for an Oscar, instead taking home Best Picture at the Independent Spirit Awards. Clearly, a summer release of “Minari” was not in the cards after COVID closed many cinemas. But A24 never hesitated to pursue an Oscar campaign for the film, reserving the film on the (moderate) autumn festival circuit.
This year, building buzz and awareness and transforming a peaceful rural family drama into something unmissable on the Academy’s exhibition portal is a challenge. That’s why the Globes controversy could be an incentive for the film, which drew support from the Gotham Awards and early critics groups (Los Angeles, Boston) for supporting actress Youn Yuh-jung.
As soon as voters of the award see “MInari”, they will respond. The story about a determined young farmer (Steven Yeun) trying to build a sustainable future for his family is relatable during these difficult times, as he and his wife (Yeri Han), his mother (Youn) and his son (Alan S (Kim) face one devastating obstacle after another.
Whatever happens to the Oscars, Chung arrived in Hollywood, after three respected films that did not reach audiences outside the festival circuit. Having embraced improvised acting techniques (inspired by Abbas Kiarostami, Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Wong Kar Wai), the Yale graduate, who initially avoided pursuing the Los Angeles connections that most filmmakers crave, decided it was time to find out how write a more accessible film.
“I wanted to find my own way through this,” he said. “But the craft itself, there is no way to improve and practice it. I feel that something about it was challenging for me. I didn’t grow up breathing cinema. I had to find out everything in public. “
And he wanted to do something more personal. So he created a fictional fable based on his education on an Arkansas farm, maintaining the point of view of his seven-year-old self. Notably, this structure works, giving us a more open, honest and often comical view of what is happening. “I took time off and realized that what I lacked was discipline to try to write a script.”
In part, Chung’s thinking changed when he had a child. “I had to stop taking myself and the job so seriously,” he said. “Somehow, I saw the bigger context of life. It’s just a movie. What I wanted to do was entertain, delight and put the audience on a pleasant walk. The images, we knew we wouldn’t have much time. I didn’t want the film to draw attention to the direction choices. I wanted the attention to go to the family and the performances. I tried to keep things simple and not do too many flourishes. “
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For “Minari”, Chung’s cinematic inspiration was François Truffaut’s alter ego, Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Leaud) in “The 400 Blows”. And his literary inspirations were the autobiographical “My Antonia” by Willa Cather, told from a boy’s point of view, as well as Anton Chekhov’s short story “The Step”.
After many adjustments, Chung figured out how to let “the boy provide the eyes in some way,” he said. “You enter it not only with the boy in the present, but the idea is to contain a retrospective, to look at a story through memory.”
Chung discarded his original narration before production. “He is clearly more aware of all these characters and relationships than a boy would really have,” he said. “Once you go with Steven Yeun and you take [the boy’s] look, at various points, in some way that would bring down the film. It doesn’t work so much, seriously. It works by seeing it through innocent eyes, which anchored the film. [In the editing room] I put it looking in a few moments. This was not in the script. “
Getting help developing the script was critical, and production executive Christina Oh (“The Last Black Man in San Francisco”) pulled him into Plan B. “She had a deep passion for history,” he said. “They try to protect the director’s intention in a project. They made sure to bring in a team of people to help me realize this, like DP Lachlan Milne, Harry Yeun the editor, the production designer, the composer of ‘The Last Black Man in San Francisco’ ”.
The frequent partner of Plan B A24 (“Moonlight”) came on board as the financing studio before production.
As for the autobiographical aspects of the story, Chung said: “There is nothing in the film that is dishonest, but it is difficult to pinpoint what really happened or not, what is fictionalized because of the narrative. There was a fire, and my grandmother watched a lot of fighting. “
Yeun provided some financeable stellar power. “He’s not just charismatic and electrifying,” said Chung. “Something about him brings him on this journey, no matter what he’s doing. What Jacob is doing is a bit reprehensible, bringing his family to the farm. He has not asked for any collaboration with his wife for this venture, he is putting his family at great risk. For the public to continue to follow him, he has to be someone like Steven, who will arouse our sympathy and understanding of why he is doing what he is doing. We called him an executive producer at the start of this, largely because of his involvement with Plan B and A24. “
The director lived in Korea for a few months to cast the film. He wanted Korean movie star Youn Yuh-jung to play the Korean grandmother who invades the family, but she needed to be convincing. “She read the script for a guy known for making films about Rwanda,” he said. “She is a legend and an icon in Korea, there was nothing to be gained by doing this, to be honest. At this point in your life, it’s sauce. Even my parents thought, ‘My son finally got to work with Youn Yuh-jung.’ “
Chung shot the film with little money in 25 days. “And we only had Alan for six hours on the set, and he was in almost every scene,” he said. “It wasn’t many hours. There were explosions of intense hours, short hours, with no room for mistakes ever. Lachlan [Milne] and I turned to each other and said, ‘We are just working with intuition, there is no time to think.’ I just believe that Lachlan can do anything. He’s a superhero. “
The tough boy and the grandmother were the combination that kept happening. “Alan was great at being there and Jung was so good at creating a fun atmosphere with his performance,” he said. “They had incredible chemistry. I was laughing behind the monitor and discovering new things, and it shows in the film ”.
“Minari” was a multilingual scenario, with many of the Korean actors not being able to speak English fluently. “I tried not to create a separation between the Koreans and the crew,” said Chung. “One of the joys was seeing the team making the film personal for them. They are local crew from the city of Tulsa and Oklahoma, they are farmers or grew up like me. I found that things resonated with them. We wanted it to be first of all human. “
And Chung wanted the film to look like a fable or a fairy tale. “Much of the content is meant to be cool in the way it fits,” said Chung, “and dreamer in a way that I thought might be a short story.”
Will the film pass the Golden Globes and enter the Oscar contest? A little controversy cannot hurt.