Oscars 2021: What my ‘Minari’ friendship taught me

I’ve never been through a stranger awards season — and not just for the obvious reasons.

Let me rewind about two years. One Saturday in June 2019, my wife, my daughter and I went to Echo Park Lake to have a picnic with a few friends. It was as perfect a day as we’ve ever spent in Los Angeles: We splashed around in pedal boats and gorged ourselves on banh mi and ice cream. And sometime that afternoon, my filmmaker friend Isaac — back in town with his family after having spent eight months teaching in Incheon, South Korea — quietly dropped the news that he was headed to Oklahoma to direct his first narrative feature in eight years. And unlike the others, this one would be inspired by his own ’80s Arkansas childhood. And, oh yeah, Plan B and A24 were involved. Steven Yeun would be playing his dad.

The movie, of course, was “Minari,” and Isaac, as his friends and family know him, is writer-director Lee Isaac Chung. Looking back at that June day, I can’t help but marvel at how little we knew what was in store — for the movie, for Isaac’s career and for an industry that would be dramatically upended eight months later, culminating in a topsy-turvy Oscar night that would see Isaac strolling into a decked-out Union Station with nominations for director and original screenplay. But sitting there in the park that day, simply knowing that Isaac was giving filmmaking one more shot was more than enough.

It was also exciting and surprising to hear that he had decided to draw from his own experience; personal history is a source of inspiration for many independent filmmakers, but Isaac had never seemed so inclined. It wasn’t just that his features — starting with “Munyurangabo” (2007), his solemn, haunting drama about a personal reckoning in post-genocide Rwanda — had so far avoided any whiff of the autobiographical. Over our decade-long friendship, I’d never known Isaac — kind, thoughtful, unassuming Isaac — to talk much about himself at all. He might not even have mentioned the news that day if our friend Eugene Suen, a filmmaker and close colleague of Isaac’s, hadn’t dragged it out of him. Isaac rarely seemed to consider the details of his life worthy of a five-minute conversation, let alone a feature film.

How wonderful that he changed his mind. Isaac has since written in this newspaper about how, at a time when his filmmaking career seemed to have stalled, he had to give himself permission to look inward, sift through his memories and realize that he had a remarkable story to tell. And telling it wasn’t easy. If you’ve seen his other movies — like the eerily fascinating “Abigail Harm” (2012) or the documentary “I Have Seen My Last Born” (2015), a powerful companion to “Munyurangabo” (co-directed with Samuel Gray Anderson) — you know how different “Minari” feels in tone, structure and style. Making it forced Isaac to set aside some of the more oblique visual and narrative strategies he’d absorbed from some of his favorite filmmakers, like Abbas Kiarostami and Hou Hsiao-hsien, and work in a more direct, emotionally accessible register.

The “Minari” family stands in a grassy field.

The “Minari” family, played by, from left, Steven Yeun, Alan Kim, Yuh-Jung Youn, Yeri Han and Noel Cho.

(Josh Ethan Johnson / A24)

He didn’t jettison his poetic influences entirely, of course. Lachlan Milne’s cinematography in “Minari” has its touches of shimmering Terrence Malickian wonderment, particularly in those sun-dappled images of a farmer at work and children at play. And I wouldn’t be the first to point out echoes of the great Taiwanese drama “Yi Yi” (2000); like that film’s late director, Edward Yang, Isaac sees each character in the family whole and achieves a dramatic balance as elegant as it is egalitarian. (And like “Yi Yi,” which introduced a 9-year-old scene stealer in Jonathan Chang, “Minari” features a breakout role for Alan Kim as David, Isaac’s on-screen stand-in.)

Here I should pause and note how strange it feels to be writing at length about “Minari,” something I knew I’d never be able to do without making the fullest of disclosures to the reader. Since Isaac was already a filmmaker and I was already a critic when we became friends 10 years ago, it’s always gone without saying that I could never review his movies — a vow that, in light of “Minari,” has of course become a bit more difficult to keep.

But I had to keep it. Maybe that was why I responded so fast when Isaac texted me from Oklahoma mid-shoot, asking me to think up the dorkiest possible pun for a sign that would appear in the movie. (That dowsing-service flier that reads “Water You Looking For”? That’s all me.) I figured that contributing something to the production, no matter how tiny, would make my need for self-recusal even more obvious. (A pun also seemed the least I could do to repay Isaac for the amazing gift that he and his wife, Valerie, had made for my daughter three years earlier: a beautifully illustrated book of animal pictures with onomatopoiec titles inspired by the films of Wong Kar-wai, like “Oinking Express,” “Yappy Together” and “In the Moo for Love.”It’s seriously the greatest thing ever.)

A few months later, when “Minari” was in post-production, I agreed to watch a rough cut and offer feedback — an experience that made me almost as nervous as it must have made Isaac. As a critic, you cherish that window of time you get to yourself after seeing a film, even if it’s only a few hours, before having to render a verdict. I’m not good at insta-reactions, and I can remember few silences more awkward than the one that settled in right after that first screening, when Isaac, his editor Harry Yoon and his producer Christina Oh sat down to hear what I’d thought. Was everything OK? Didn’t I like it? I did, enormously — but to express that admiration sincerely, without seeming either too gushy or stingy with praise, suddenly seemed beyond my abilities. So did the task of offering judgment on a work-in-progress, which only made the stakes seem even higher.

Eventually, though, we made progress. Sure, I acknowledged, they could probably lose that one scene they were still fiddling with — but then, I countered, why not keep it in, since it added dimension and texture to the story? I expressed my delight at the rich comic interplay between David (Kim) and his grandmother Soonja (Yuh-Jung Youn). (None of us could have guessed, of course, that Youn would be clutching an Oscar more than a year later — or that she’d gently call out her presenter, Brad Pitt, one of “Minari’s” executive producers, for never visiting the set.) In retrospect, I’m especially glad to have pointed out that Yeri Han, who plays Monica, David’s mom, gives one of the movie’s finest performances. Christina agreed, describing her as the ensemble’s “quiet killer” — too quiet, alas, to ultimately earn the recognition she deserved.

Yuh-Jung Youn, holding her Oscar, gives her acceptance speech.

Yuh-Jung Youn won the best supporting actress Oscar on Sunday for her performance in “Minari.”

(ABC)

Speaking of recognition: It wasn’t too long after seeing “Minari” that I began to idly wonder if it might win a prize at the upcoming Sundance Film Festival. I’m not usually prone to speculating so far in advance, but in this case, some combination of early access and shameless personal bias brought out the reckless prognosticator in me. “Isaac could win Sundance!” I remember telling Eugene, who was as excited as I was about how the movie might play. Within a few weeks we knew: It played through the roof. The reviews out of Park City, Utah, were glowing. It was a terrific year for the U.S. dramatic competition — “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” “The Forty-Year-Old Version,” “Miss Juneteenth” and “Palm Springs” were among the standouts — but “Minari” ended up sweeping both the grand jury prize and the audience award.

There I go, churning out the kind of breathless copy any responsible critic is supposed to avoid. But as this experience has taught me, if you’re fortunate enough to be friends with a talented filmmaker — and to be friends with him as he’s introducing his breakthrough movie to the world — there’s something to be said for hanging up your critic’s hat for a moment and owning your fandom without guilt or apology. And once you do, it’s amazing how swiftly your mind-set changes. I’ve sat through countless filmmaker introductions at Sundance, smiling tolerantly through the short-and-sweet ones and rolling my eyes at the others. But when Isaac introduced “Minari” at the first screening and nearly broke down crying thanking Valerie, I found myself scanning the crowd for those eye rolls: To hell with anyone who might scoff at my friend and his movie. I needn’t have worried.

Sundance clearly was the beginning of something. In retrospect, it also felt like a last hurrah. It was at a festival party with the “Minari” cast and crew in Park City that I first heard someone express real alarm about the threat of the coronavirus — which we’d all heard about, but only in a vague, muted sort of way — and the devastating effect it was going to have all over the world, the U.S. included. The full force of that warning hit home weeks later when we were back in Los Angeles and it became clear that life was about to change in ways beyond our imagining.

Among other things, it meant that the film industry, like countless other industries, was about to be turned upside down. But if Isaac had any self-pity about “Minari” and the mounting uncertainty over whether it would play theaters in 2020, he didn’t show it. I felt grateful that the movie had at least been seen and embraced before the industry went into lockdown; “Minari” might be postponed, but it would not be forgotten. The next several months of the pandemic became a waiting game in more ways than one. On some weekends Isaac, Eugene and I would meet up for physically distanced hangouts with our families; we’d hole up in an empty Alhambra parking structure drinking boba tea, watching the kids run around and occasionally discussing the latest on “Minari.” Any word? Not yet. But hopefully soon.

And finally in December, nearly a year after Sundance, the movie opened for an awards-qualifying virtual run — at which point I found myself texting Isaac often, probably annoyingly often. I couldn’t review the movie myself, but I could send him every glowing notice I read (including the one written by my colleague Glenn Whipp, which ran on the front page of The Times’ Calendar section). I couldn’t vote for the movie in any year-end critics’ awards, but I could send Isaac a congratulatory text whenever I learned that “Minari” had been nominated for another prize or five. (Isaac noted, appreciatively, that I sometimes broke the news faster than the fine folks at A24 did.)

"Minari" writer-director Lee Isaac Chung gets a hug from his daughter, Livia, in a living room.

“Minari” writer-director Lee Isaac Chung accepts the Golden Globe for best foreign-language film with his daughter, Livia.

(NBC)

When the controversy erupted around the Golden Globes’ classification of “Minari” as a foreign-language film, I sent Isaac an earful of indignation on my part, though he was less irritated by said classification than by the simple fact that the controversy would overshadow any conversation about the movie itself. Still, none of us could begrudge the movie’s Globe win, especially since it introduced the world to Isaac’s daughter, Livia — one of the few perfect human beings on the planet, I can attest — who stole the show when she threw her arms around her dad’s neck.

Sometimes Isaac and I joked about ending our friendship, thereby eliminating that pesky conflict of interest. Over the last several months, a few people did express regret that I’d had to sit this one out, given the importance of an Asian American critic weighing in on a significant film by an Asian American filmmaker. I could see their point, even if I knew it would probably make both Isaac and me cringe to hear the situation — our relationship, our identities, our work — described so reductively.

In interviews, Isaac has noted that “Minari” is, yes, a rare humanizing portrait of an Asian American family (and in a year of virulent anti-Asian racism, sadly, that’s a far more necessary achievement than it ought to be). But he has also gently, eloquently deflected the idea that his film should be interpreted as emblematic of the Asian American experience, whatever that even means. I imagine he feels the same twinge of discomfort that Steven Yeun acknowledged when he became the first Asian American man to receive a lead actor Oscar nomination. Even the singling out of historic achievements, important and long overdue as they may be, can feel curiously otherizing, or at least distracting.

Some of the finest critical writing on “Minari” has chipped away at those labels and pursued less obvious angles. I’m thinking particularly of Anne Anlin Cheng’s exquisite piece on the movie’s “profound melancholia” about the American Dream (complete with incisive analysis of the Mountain Dew gag) and Isaac Feldberg’s piercing essay on watching the film through the specific lens of David’s congenital heart defect. As “Minari” and the vast range of responses to it remind us, representation isn’t always about what’s immediately on the surface. We all find our own distinct entry points into a movie — and I feel lucky to have been granted a more personal and privileged entry point into “Minari” than most.

The journey since then has been extraordinary, even if the destination proved bittersweet. Isaac didn’t win either of the Oscars he was nominated for Sunday night, and the friend and fan in me couldn’t help but ache for him a little. The critic in me knows, of course, that for any gifted filmmaker who’s just hit his stride, the possibilities ahead are endless. Isaac’s future is gloriously unwritten. And will remain unwritten about by me — for a while, at least.



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