Lee Isaac Chung



6.5 Munyurangabo (2007)
6.0 Abigail Harm (2012)
7.3 Minari (2020)
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Lee Isaac Chung (USA, 1978), of Korean descent but born in the USA, debuted with a film in the language of Rwanda, Munyurangabo (2007).

Lucky Life (2010)

Abigail Harm (2012)

I Have Seen My Last Born (2015)

Minari (2020) is a gentle apologue about the meaning of life that assigns a cardinal role to both superstition (represented by the wife's religious belief) and unrealistic dreams (represented by the husband's determination to build his own farm), showing how blurred the border between the rational and the irrational is. Is it rational to invest everything into a risky project? Is it irrational to pray for healing from a potentially deadly disease? Is it rational to dig a well where nobody did it before? Is it irrational to hire a water diviner who has a reputation for finding water? Halfway between the two is the granma, a carefree woman who has gone through a war and doesn't care about rules and regulations. In the end her simple mind will make the family stronger even at the cost of disaster.

During the Reagan years (1980s), a Korean family arrives at the land that they purchased in a rural state. Their new home is a very long mobile home on wheels, quite different from the modern home that they had in California. The man, Jacob, is excited to own a large piece of land, but his wife Monica is disappointed by the conditions of the house. They keep telling their little son David not to run. Jacob shows his wife why he purchased that land: it has the best dirt in the USA. Every day Monica checks David's heart: he suffers from a serious heart disease. Jacob and Monica start working at a local hatchery, where they sort male and female chicks (male chicks get killed because they don't taste good and can't lay eggs), but Jacob's real work is preparing the land for his project. His wife would prefer to move to town and find a babysitter and be near a hospital, but he wants the land to grow food. When a storm hits the region, he fears a tornado and prepares to evacuate the family. The tornado doesn't come but Monica gets even more hostile to living there, calling him "crazy". After a big argument, they reach a compromise: they call her mother from Korea to come and live with them. A water diviner shows up to offer to find water for Jacob. Jacob is appalled that people in the USA believe such superstitions. He uses a shovel and digs where it's obvious that there must be water, based on the vegetation, and makes his own well. He buys a tractor. The man who delivers it, Paul, is looking for a job. He is a Korean War veteran. He seems a little deranged and even prays for Jacob's family, and Jacob hires him. Jacob explains to his daughter that every year 30,000 Koreans emigrate to the USA and miss their food: he plans to grow the vegetables that Koreans like. That's his grand project, that's why he invested all his California savings in that land. Monica explains to her children that her mother lost her husband in the Korean war. Monica's mom arrives. Monica cries when her mom unpacks the gifts she brought from Korea, things she hasn't seen in years. Her mom even insists on giving her money. It takes a while for David to accept the granma. He is puzzled that she can't cook. He asks her what she can do and she can't answer. At work Monica meets another Korean woman and learn that there are a handful of Koreans in that region. Granma babysits the children when they are at work at the hatchery. Granma finds a place by a creek where minari (Korean parsley) would grow well. Monica is religious and makes David constantly pray for his heart. Jacob understands that Monica is lonely and offers to take the whole family to church. During mass Monica puts a $100 bill in the basket of tithes. Monica's mom promptly steals it, and only David sees her. On the way home they see Paul walking on the road carrying a cross like Jesus. Paul explains that he does it every sunday. At home David complains with granma that she doesn't look like a granma: she doesn't bake cookies, she curses, she wears men's underwear. He dislikes her also because she tells everybody that he pees on himself. And so David pees in a cup of tea and serves it to granma. His father punishes him even if granma forgives him right away. One day Jacob realizes that the plants have no water: the well has run dry. He tries to find more water but sprains his back. Monica is less and less excited about the farm. Jacob has to pay the county to deliver the water. Finally, after working very hard in his spare time, he has the crop of Korean vegetables ready for shipment but his Korean wholesale customer changes his mind and Jacob is stuck with crop that will rot if not sold soon. David and granma finally bond when he injures himself slightly in the house. David has to skip a church picnic with his sister and instead spends the day with granma. Granma has been secretly planting minari by the creek and takes David to enjoy the plants that are growing naturally. Monica is ever more depressed as she realizes that Jacob is using all the water for his crop and they have to save water inside the house. Granma surprises her with buckets of water: she and David carried them from the creek. Monica is upset that granma had David carry heavy buckets despite his weak heart but granma is convinced that David is stronger than that. Granma is also upset that Monica makes David pray all the time, which makes him afraid of dying. Just when granma and David have become best friends granma suffers a stroke: she can't speak and can't move. While the parents take granma to the hospital, the children stay with friends. Granma comes back from the hospital but is severely disabled. Monica now is more determined than ever to move back to California, with or without Jacob. Monica and Paul perform an exorcism in granma's room but it upsets Jacob, who doesn't believe in such superstition. The family goes on a trip to a distant city for two purposes: have David checked by a specialist, and sell crop to prospective Korean customer. At the hospital Monica begs Jacob to return to California with her and the children, and try to pay off the debts accumulated in the farm, but Jacob doesn't want to go back to a miserable daily routine and doesn't want to abandon his project. The specialist tells them that David has significantly improved. Then they visit the prospective Korean customer and Jacob gets the deal, his first customer. Jacob is excited but Monica doesn't say a word to congratulate him: she's had enough of his farming project. Alone at the farm, the disabled granma tries to burn some trash but instead sets fire to the grass and the fire spreads to the barn where Jacob's produce is stored. When the family arrives home in the middle of the night, they first smell the smoke and then see the barn on fire. Jacob risks his life taking boxes out of the barn. Monica rushes to help him. They risk to get asphyxiated. At one point Jacob grabs Monica and pulls her out of the smoke that is making her cough uncontrollably. They sit outside watching the fire engulf the building and destroy Jacob's dream. Granma is walking like a zombie away from the house. David runs after her, stops her and leads her back to the car. Sometime later Jacob and Monica hire the water diviner who uses the magic stick to find water, the superstition that Jacob never believed. Little David takes his father Jacob to the minari that granma planted. Jacob realizes that granma picked the perfect spot. They have a crop to restart their farm.
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