‘Minari’ and me: What my friend’s Oscars journey taught me about being a critic
I have never been through an unfamiliar person awards season — and not simply for the obvious reasons.
Let me rewind about two years. One Saturday within June 2019, my wife, the daughter and I went to Echo Park Lake to have a picnic with a few friends. It had been as perfect a day because we’ve ever spent in Los Angeles: We splashed close to in pedal boats plus gorged ourselves on banh mi and ice cream. Plus sometime that afternoon, our filmmaker friend Isaac — back in town with his family members after having spent eight months teaching in Incheon, South Korea — silently 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, ok last one, Plan B and A24 were involved. Steven Yeun would be playing his father.
The movie, naturally , was “Minari, ” plus Isaac, as his friends and family know him, is writer-director Lee Isaac Chung. Searching back at that 06 day, I can’t help but marvel at how little we knew the thing that was in store — for the film, for Isaac’s career as well as for an industry that would be dramatically upended eight months later, culminating in a topsy-turvy Oscar night time that would see Isaac strolling into a decked-out Union Place with nominations for movie director and original screenplay. Yet sitting there in the park that day, simply understanding that Isaac was giving filmmaking one more shot was sufficient.
It was furthermore exciting and surprising to hear that he had decided to draw from his own experience; private history is a source of inspiration for many independent filmmakers, yet Isaac had never appeared so inclined. It was not just that his features — starting with “Munyurangabo” (2007) , his solemn, haunting drama about a personal reckoning in post-genocide Rwanda — had so far prevented any whiff of the autobiographical. Over our decade-long friendship, I’d never known Isaac — kind, thoughtful, humble Isaac — to talk much about himself at all. He may not even have mentioned the news that day if our friend Eugene Suen, a filmmaker and close friend of Isaac’s, hadn’t drawn it out of him. Isaac rarely seemed to consider the details of his life worthy of a five-minute conversation, let alone an attribute film.
How great that he changed his brain. Isaac has since written in this paper about how, at the same time when his filmmaking career seemed to have stalled, he had to give himself permission to look inward, sift through his recollections and realize that he had an extraordinary story to tell. And informing it wasn’t easy. If you’ve seen his other movies — like the eerily intriguing “Abigail Harm” (2012) or the documentary “I Have Seen Our Last Born” (2015), an effective companion to “Munyurangabo” (co-directed with Samuel Gray Anderson) — you know how various “Minari” feels in shade, structure and style. Which makes it forced Isaac to set aside some of the more oblique visual and narrative strategies he’d absorbed from some of their favorite filmmakers, like Abbas Kiarostami and Hou Hsiao-hsien, and work in a more direct, emotionally accessible register.
He didn’t jettison his poetic influences completely, of course. Lachlan Milne’s cinematography in “Minari” has the touches of shimmering Terrence Malickian wonderment, particularly in those sun-dappled images of a farmer at work and kids at play. And I wouldn’t be the first to point out echoes of the great Taiwanese crisis “Yi” (2000); like this film’s late director, Edward cullen Yang, Isaac sees each character in the family whole and achieves a spectacular balance as elegant since it is egalitarian. (And like “Yi, ” which introduced a 9-year-old scene stealer in Jonathan Chang, “Minari” features a large role for Alan Betty as Donald, Isaac’s on-screen stand-in. )
Here I should pause and note exactly how strange it feels to be creating at length about “Minari, ” something I knew I’d never be able to carry out without making the maximum of disclosures to the viewer. Since Isaac was already the filmmaker and I was already the critic when we became friends 10 years ago, it’s constantly gone without saying that I really could never review his films — a vow that will, in light of “Minari, ” has of course become a bit more difficult to keep.
But I had to keep it. Probably that was why I responded so fast when Isaac texted me from Ok mid-shoot, asking me to think up the dorkiest possible juga for a sign that would appear in the movie. (That dowsing-service flier that reads “Water A person Looking For”? That’s all me . ) I figured that contributing something to the production, no matter how tiny, would create my need for self-recusal much more obvious. (A pun also seemed the least I could perform to repay Isaac for the amazing gift that he and his wife, Valerie, had made for our daughter three years earlier: a beautifully illustrated book associated with 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 actually . )
A few months later, when “Minari” was in post-production, I agreed to watch a rough cut and offer feedback — an event that made me nearly as nervous as it must have made Isaac. As a critic, you cherish that windowpane of time you get to yourself after seeing a film, even if it’s only a few hours, before needing to render a verdict. I am not good at insta-reactions, and I can remember few silences more awkward than the one that settled in right after that will first screening, when Isaac, his editor Harry Yoon and his producer Christina Oh yea sat down to hear exactly what I’d thought. Was almost everything OK? Didn’t I like it? I did, enormously — but to express that admiration truly, without seeming either as well gushy or stingy with praise, suddenly seemed beyond my abilities. So did the task of offering opinion on a work-in-progress, which only made the stakes appear even higher.
Eventually, though, we made progress. Sure, I recognized, they could probably lose that certain scene they were still fiddling with — but then, We countered, why not keep it in, since it added dimension plus texture to the story? I expressed my delight in the rich comic interplay in between David (Kim) and his grandma Soonja ( Yuh-Jung Youn ). (None of us could have guessed, naturally , that Youn would be clutching an Oscar more than a season later — or that she’d lightly call out her presenter , Brad Pitt, one of “Minari’s” executive producers, for by no means visiting the set. ) In retrospect, I’m specifically 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” — as well quiet, alas, to eventually earn the recognition she earned.
Speaking of recognition: It wasn’t too long after seeing “Minari” that I began to idly wonder if it might win the prize at the upcoming Sundance Film Festival. I’m not really usually prone to speculating up to now in advance, but in this case, some combination of early gain access to and shameless personal bias brought out the reckless prognosticator in me. “Isaac could win Sundance! ” I remember telling Eugene, who was because excited as I was about how the movie might play. Within a few weeks we knew: This played through the roof. The reviews out of Park City, Utah, were glowing. It was a terrific year for that U. S. dramatic competition — “Never Rarely Occasionally Always, ” “The Forty-Year-Old Version, ” “Miss Juneteenth” and “Palm Springs” were among the standouts — but “Minari” ended up sweeping both grand court prize and the audience honor .
Right now there I go, churning away the kind of breathless copy any kind of responsible critic is supposed to avoid. But as this experience provides taught me, if you’re fortunate enough to be friends with a gifted filmmaker — and to be friends with him because he’s introducing his cutting-edge movie to the world — there’s something to be mentioned for hanging up your critic’s hat for a moment plus owning your fandom without having guilt or apology. And once you do, it’s amazing just how swiftly your mind-set modifications. I’ve sat through numerous filmmaker introductions at Sundance, smiling tolerantly through the short-and-sweet ones and rolling my own eyes at the others. But when Isaac introduced “Minari” at the first screening and nearly broke down crying thanking Valerie, I discovered myself scanning the crowd for those eye rolls: To hell with anyone who may scoff at my friend and his movie. I needn’t have got worried.
Sundance clearly was the beginning of something. In retrospect, it also felt like a last hurrah. It had been at a festival party with all the “Minari” cast and staff in Park City which i first heard someone show real alarm about the danger of the coronavirus — which usually we’d all heard about, yet 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 push of that warning hit house weeks later when we had been back in Los Angeles and it became clear that life involved to change in ways beyond our own imagining.
Among other things, it meant that this film industry, like countless other industries, was about to become turned upside down. But if Isaac had any self-pity regarding “Minari” and the mounting uncertainness over whether it would have fun with theaters in 2020, he didn’t show it. We felt grateful that the film had at least been noticed and embraced before the sector went into lockdown; “Minari” could be postponed, but it would not be forgotten. The next several months of the pandemic became a waiting game in more ways compared to one. On some week-ends Isaac, Eugene and I might meet up for physically distanced hangouts with our families; we’d hole up in an empty Alhambra parking structure consuming boba tea, watching the children run around and sometimes discussing the latest on “Minari. ” Any word? Not yet. But hopefully soon.
And finally keep away from, nearly a year after Sundance, the movie opened for an awards-qualifying virtual run — where point I found myself texting Isaac often , probably annoyingly often. I couldn’t evaluation the movie myself, but I could send him every glowing notice I read (including the one written by my colleague Glenn Whipp , which ran around the front page of The Times’ Calendar section). I couldn’t vote for the movie in different year-end critics’ awards , but I really could send Isaac a congratulatory text whenever I found that “Minari” had been nominated another prize or five. (Isaac noted, appreciatively, that I sometimes broke the news faster than the fine folks at A24 did. )
When the controversy erupted throughout the Golden Globes’ classification associated with “Minari” as a foreign-language film, I sent Isaac an earful of indignation on my part, though he or she was less irritated simply by said classification than by the simple fact that the controversy would overshadow any conversation regarding the movie itself. Still, nothing of us could begrudge the particular movie’s Globe win, especially since it introduced the world in order to Isaac’s daughter, Livia — one of the few perfect human beings on the planet, I can attest — who also stole the show when she threw her hands around her dad’s neck.
Sometimes Isaac and I joked about ending our friendship, thereby removing that pesky conflict appealing. Over the last several months, a few people do express regret that I’d had to sit this one out there, given the importance of an Hard anodized cookware American critic weighing within on a significant film simply by an Asian American filmmaker. I could see their point, even if I knew it could probably make both Isaac and me cringe to know the situation — our relationship, our identities, our work — described so reductively.
In selection interviews, Isaac has noted that will “Minari” is, yes, an unusual humanizing portrait of an Hard anodized cookware American family (and in a year of virulent anti-Asian racism, sadly, that’s a far more necessary achievement than it must be). But he has furthermore gently, eloquently deflected the concept his film should be construed as emblematic of the Hard anodized cookware American experience, whatever that will even means. I visualize he feels the same twinge of discomfort that Steven Yeun acknowledged when this individual became the first Asian United states man to receive a prospect actor Oscar nomination. However, singling out of historic achievements, important and long overdue as they may be, can feel curiously otherizing, or at least entertaining.
Some of the finest vital writing on “Minari” offers chipped away at those people labels and pursued much less obvious angles. I’m thinking particularly of Anne Anlin Cheng’s exquisite piece around the movie’s “profound melancholia” concerning the American Dream (complete along with incisive analysis of the Hill Dew gag) and Isaac Feldberg’s piercing essay upon watching the film with the specific lens of David’s congenital heart defect. Because “Minari” and the vast range of responses to it remind all of us, representation isn’t always regarding what’s immediately on the surface. All of us find our own distinct entry points into a movie — and I feel lucky to get been granted a more individual and privileged entry point in to “Minari” than most.
The journey since that time has been extraordinary, even if the destination proved bittersweet. Isaac didn’t win either of the Oscars he was nominated with regard to Sunday night, and the friend and fan in myself couldn’t help but symptoms for him a little. The particular critic in me knows, of course , that for any gifted filmmaker who’s just strike his stride, the possibilities forward are endless. Isaac’s upcoming is gloriously unwritten. And will remain unwritten about simply by me — for a while, a minimum of.