What Minari Teaches Filmmakers About Character and Naturalism

Explore filmmaker Lee Isaac Chung’s naturalistic approach to character in Minari, and how you can hone in on this unique storytelling method.

Since its original premiere at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, the film Minari has been a long time coming. And, not just because of a much-delayed release due to industry-wide lockdowns. The story of Minari is so personal and real that the earliest inklings of its development began sprouting back in filmmaker Lee Isaac Chung’s childhood.

The film tells the semi-autobiographical story of Chung’s South Korean immigrant family trying to find success and the American dream in rural America during the 1980s. The film is beautifully written, shot, and edited and features outstanding performances from a cast that includes both American and Korean stars—Steven Yeun, Han Ye-ri, Youn Yuh-jung, and Will Patton.

However, what truly makes the film unique, from a filmmaking perspective, is how much it can teach filmmakers about the importance of realism, character, and creating naturalism. So, by taking a look at some of the cinematic elements, as well as hearing from Chung himself, let’s explore what’s really at the heart of Minari’s storytelling, and how you too can create unique, rich, and natural characters and stories in your own projects.

Pull from Real Characters and Stories

When creating naturalism in your films, it certainly helps when you can pull from real stories, people, and life, as was the case for Minari where the characters are all based on Chung’s family. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Chung talks about how scary this can be, especially when tasked with telling the stories of those close to you.

“They thought I was doing some exposé about them . . . They were stressed about it and I was stressed about it,” Chung admits. However, stating that despite his initial attempts to hide the true subjects of his film from his family originally, he did show it to them to get their feedback.

For filmmakers chasing this level of realism in their projects, it’s important to find the right balance between pulling from real life and honoring those they care about, while also not prying too much or too deep into another person’s experiences. You have to be sure that you’re reaching out only to those who ultimately trust and believe in you.

Help the Audience Find Their Own Nostalgia

If anything can help provide insight into what makes Chung’s film feel so personal and powerful, it’s this video essay from Spikima Movies. He really hits the nail on the head with his statement that Minari is actually not really about characters, instead, its “ultimate goal is to help the audience recall the indescribable nostalgia of home.”

And really, that does appear to be Chung’s true objective for the film, which is obviously near and dear to his heart. But, it becomes a much bigger exploration of what home and family means to all of us.

Video essays like this one—exploring the “beautiful tragedy”—are creative ways to give retroactive meaning to a film you’ve already watched and experienced yourself. As a filmmaker, Chung makes decisions all the time that not only drive the plot, but ultimately invoke emotions and nostalgia in the audience.

Look for Authentic Casting and Connections

To hear Chung talk about his film is quite inspiring for others who might want to start small and work their way up in indie filmmaking circles. Minari is by no means a big-budget production. Shot on location and with a crammed production calendar, Chung talks about how much of the film came together quickly and had to be shot with indie sensibilities at every turn.

However, the overall results are impressive, even to some of the biggest names in Hollywood. In the conversation above, J.J. Abrams admits that he’s a huge fan of Chung’s work. Still, it’s interesting how much Chung has to say in the conversation with Abrams and Yeun, about how everything from production to casting was about looking for authentic moments and to create natural connections and performances.

Let the Story Develop on its Own

In another fantastic interview with a filmmaking legend, Chung talks further about the making of Minari with Parasite director Bong Joon Ho, who’s also familiar with telling diverse, fascinating stories of characters and class struggles. However, as both filmmakers open up in the interview above, Chung talks a bit more about some of the decisions he made in regards to working with voiceover narration or, more specifically, how and why he chose to forgo any narration at all.

Chung also admits that at separate times, voiceover narration was meant to be an integral part of the film, whether throughout or in “bookend” sections at the beginning and end of the film. For filmmakers, narration can often be a perfect tool (as well as voiceover being not hard to add) to help guide a film and provide a much stronger narrative backbone, so to speak. But, as Chung and Bong agree, it can also be a bit of a crutch and actually get in the way of a more natural approach to filmmaking, where the story is left to develop with the audience on its own.

Push for New Films and Voices

Ultimately, as Chung talks about in this featurette with the entire cast, films like Minari simply might not have been made in the past. And, as The Hollywood Reporter piece highlights, it really was a perfect representation of a new level of openness and diversity in Hollywood, that helped to streamline the script and production through development.

Chung’s storytelling was never stifled or asked to push for an “Americanization” of his film or experiences. And, the results are a filmmaking process that allowed for a new voice and a fresh process. A talented director, cast, and crew were all able to capitalize on this process for both critical and commercial success.

Hopefully, films like Minari will help serve as an example for up-and-coming filmmakers looking to tell their own, unique stories—with character and naturalism—as well as film producers being more open and mindful to developing these stories based on authenticity, rather than old stereotypes and formulas.

For more filmmaking breakdowns, insights, and interviews, check out these articles:

Cover image via A24.

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