In a year where Asian-American stories have been brought to the forefront, few voices have been as celebrated as Lee Isaac Chung’s. Oscar-nominated for his work on Minari, a semi-autobiographical tale of his upbringing in the South, Chung joins Nomadland’s Chloe Zhao as one of two Asian filmmakers nominated for Best Director and Best Picture this year.
The success of Minari, which follows a Korean-American family’s move to rural Arkansas, has propelled Chung into the spotlight — a welcomed but perhaps unfamiliar position for someone whose mercurial career had him considering a switch from filmmaking to dental school as recently as four years ago.
But for Chung, who grew up in the U.S. and now lives in Los Angeles, the film has not only given him a new platform to speak about his own experiences within the industry, but also a new measurement for what it means to find success (spoiler alert: it has nothing to do with awards).
And while Minari has been celebrated as an “Asian-American film,” Chung says it’s actually a very decidedly American film, about the struggles of entrepreneurship, the desire to fit in, and the importance of having a family to love. At a time where the country feels more divided than ever, these shared values and narratives are unifying themes that we can all agree on, no matter your race or creed.
“I like the idea of all of us looking at the world with less of an emphasis on national borders and with more of an emphasis on shared humanity,” Chung says. “I’m a human being and this story is about human beings.”
We caught up with Chung on the eve of the Oscars to decode the messages in Minari, the responsibility — and grievances — he feels as an “Asian filmmaker” and why the idea of success has suddenly changed for him after the most critically-acclaimed year of his life.
On how much he drew from his own life while writing Minari…
A lot of this film is me putting myself in many of the characters. I do care what my daughter thinks and what the future generation of whoever is down the line will think. And that was something that I was working through [on Minari]. Is this man, Jacob (Steven Yeun), is he going to be so concerned with success being what validates him, or is it going to be something else? And that’s something that I needed to work through personally. And I put it into the story in some way.
On rumors that Minari was going to be his final film before pursuing a teaching career.
Working at this craft, at filmmaking, without any clear progress. I had some early success with my first film and since then it’s been a grind. It’s clearly a craft that I love, and a craft that I work on constantly, but after so many years, I didn’t feel like I had much to show for that. And I was coming to a point in my life where I had to decide, ‘Do I keep at it? Or do I switch over to another career?’ And I had made the decision that I’m pretty much going to start switching over, and this script was really the last hurrah.
On the Golden Globes controversy, where Minari was nominated in the “Foreign Language Film” category despite its American cast and Chung being an American writer/director.
It’s a very tiring thing for a lot of us to be called “foreign,” even though we were born here, and we speak English. That element does get tiresome and I understand the fatigue of that. But I think about it in terms of the perspective. If there are young people who maybe are in college and are like, ‘Is this a career that I should choose? My parents want me to go to dental school,’ then I love that they could see me as an Asian-American who has found a way to make this work, who has proven that you can go into this and succeed and that it is not a dumb choice in life. On that level, I don’t mind it. I do feel uncomfortable though if that is the only thing that people see, from other communities.
Even Steven (Yeun), this is the first Asian-American actor to be nominated I believe? And there’s a reason to celebrate that. And I feel like him being Asian-American is almost besides the point — he’s just a damn good actor. And I hope that people are recognizing that.
On why Minari isn’t just an Asian-American film, but rather a film for everyone.
What I noticed is that the lens from which people want to look at Minari is just from that Asian-American angle. And I think that can end up being very frustrating. Because the craft of the film, and this film itself, is meant to embody a lot of different things. I had a lot of people who had lost family members and somehow the film helped them to remember some of the feelings they had around these family members, whether they be grandparents or siblings. And those moments have been incredibly precious for me, and I’ve tried to save those emails and talks, just to remember the film that way, that it is really about people and human beings.
On why the idea of “success” is overrated.
Work brings dignity. Everybody’s got to work and everybody has to feel that dignity from the work itself. There are a lot of people who are doing incredible work right now and are not getting success or not getting the accolades, but they’re the ones who are really keeping society together right now and I hope we can all give them the accolades somehow.
This is the latest installment of Rolling Stone’s new video series, RS Interview: Special Edition, featuring in-depth conversations with notable figures in music, entertainment, and politics. Episodes premiere every week on Rolling Stone’s YouTube channel.