Oenanthe javanicaAlso known as water celery or Japanese parsley, it is an herb used in various Asian cuisines; in Korea it is known as -do not. “It’s the kind of plant that you put in food to give it a little more flavor,” says Korean-American filmmaker Lee Isaac Chung. Chung didn’t like himself as a child, but his grandmother planted him on the Arkansas farm where the headmaster grew up, and Threatening is now the title of his new feature film: a fictional evocation of his childhood.
The grass is known to flourish where other plants fight, making Threatening an apt name for a story about the struggle to put down roots, as the Chung family did when they arrived in Arkansas in the 1970s. Seen through the eyes of seven-year-old David Yi, Threatening is a lyrical, often funny story about family ties, cultural identity, and the problems children can have with a grandmother they love, but which can also be strange and embarrassing. Threatening it won the grand jury award and the audience award at Sundance last year, and last week it won the award for best foreign language film at the Golden Globes, with Oscar hopes ahead.
As an autobiography, Threatening it’s a mix of things that happened and didn’t happen, says the 42-year-old filmmaker over the phone. But throughout, his memories of the family farm are deeply charged with personal meaning. “When we arrived, it was a field with very tall grass. I still remember how tall that grass was for me as a child, and how we would see snakes slithering through it as we went for a walk. “
Jacob and Monica, the parents in the film, make their living off sex chickens, as Chung’s own parents did (he investigated sexing chickens for Threatening, and found that it requires practice and insight: “The genitals are very difficult to decipher and can only be learned through intuition”). Jacob (played by Steven Yeun of The Walking Dead and acclaimed hit by Korean author Fire) wants to cultivate an unpromising piece of land to grow produce for the Korean-American market. Chung’s own parents, who came to the US at a Korean immigration high point, had moved across the US, from Colorado to Atlanta and Arkansas, and came to their farm when Chung was five years old.
They were then joined by Chung’s grandmother, who came from Korea to care for him and his older sister. In the movie, the kids are at first baffled by her, which is exactly how Chung remembers it. “She was a girl like us in many ways, the way she behaved,” she says with a fond laugh. “We were used to the stereotypical idea of a grandmother on television, and she was not like that at all, besides, she was very young; she must have been in her 50s. We thought she didn’t even look like a grandmother, she looked like a young woman who would curse and want to teach us to gamble. “
Soon-ha, the grandmother of Threatening, has a cast two decades older than it actually was, and Youn Yuh-jung, a revered dean of South Korean film and television, plays it with enthusiasm. “I really loved the spirit that he embodies,” says Chung. “She has that reputation in Korea as someone who always speaks her mind, and for that she has given her a lot of respect and admiration. She seems to stay true to who she is. And she is a tremendous actress. “
Threatening It accomplishes a rare feat of making its five protagonists of different ages genuinely feel like a tight-knit family unit: cuteness, tensions, and all. Chung has two super young actors in Alan S Kim as David and Noel Cho as his older sister, Anne. His trick for managing kids? “I guess I’m not trying to become his best friend.” Then there is the sixth member of the unofficial family. He is portrayed by esteemed screen actor Will Patton, who contributes a gleefully unbridled performance as farm worker Paul, a passionate Christian who speaks in tongues and drags a huge cross along the road on Sunday. This must be an invention, right? Not at all, says Chung. “That comes from a real person in our lives who would do that. I wasn’t sure if it was just an Arkansas thing, but I heard other people from very rural places say they knew a guy who did that too. I see him as an artist in that community, and this is the way he has found to express his art. “
Now based in Pasadena, California, Chung majored in ecology at Yale and then went to Utah to study film. In 2007 he made his first feature film, Munyurangabo, in Rwanda, in the Kinyarwanda language. This seems like a tremendously ambitious move for a newcomer director, but Chung admits, “I’m not a visionary guy when it comes to figuring out how to continue my career.” Munyurangabo It came about because Chung’s wife Valerie, an art therapist, was going to work in Rwanda and suggested he join her. Chung made the film as part of a film-making course he taught there.
The result, filmed with a cast and crew from Rwanda, is an astonishingly understated fable about a strained friendship between two young men after the country’s civil war. Chung addressed the problem of directing in an unfamiliar language by having his students translate dialogue for him on set. “If you upload that movie, sometimes you can hear whispers, telling me exactly what has been said.”
While Munyurangabo played to be acclaimed at Cannes in 2007, Chung’s next two films, Lucky life Y Abigail harm, were little seen. “Those movies are, I would say, cutting edge,” he says cautiously. They were made under the influence, he says, of “the most minimalist filmmakers”: heavyweight authors like Tarkovsky, Abbas Kiarostami, Hou Hsiao-hsien from Taiwan. “I still love his movies, but to be honest, I had to realize that maybe this was not what I was prepared for. These days I love watching Billy Wilder. I’m not saying that the art house stuff is serious, but I needed to get out of my head a bit and not treat the movies so seriously. “
Chung almost stopped directing after those movies, but Threatening it arose from a reassessment of what mattered to him about cinema. “I think about my friends in Arkansas and all the movies we watched together, and I think that’s more the audience I wanted to connect with.”
While Threatening is about immigrants arriving in an unknown world, the film shows a light touch in its treatment of racial and cultural differences. The Yi children face what we would now call microaggressions from local children, but these are presented as essentially benign in their disorientation. This is true to his experience, says Chung. “I grew up feeling that the main obstacles we were trying to overcome had more to do with how we survived together as a family and less with the external relationships we had with the community. Racism existed and I’ve experienced some horrible incidents, but when I think back to those days, it’s more about farming and the difficulties of trying to love each other. “
Threatening It is a film of eminently American tradition, a drama about taming the earth, like so many westerns, so there has been some controversy in the sense that its Golden Globes category was not best film, but best foreign language film. One year after the Korean success Parasite triumphed at the Oscars, this seems all strange. “There is no easy answer,” Chung says diplomatically when we spoke the week before his victory. “Many times we have these categories that may not fit the reality of human experience and human identity. I fully sympathize with what many people in my community say: that often, as Asian Americans, we are made to feel more foreign than we do internally. “
Now he’s signed up to direct a live-action remake of the Japanese anime film. Your name, Chung is part of a new generation of Asian and Asian-American directors (Cathy Yan, Lulu Wang, Chloé Zhao) who have a huge impact on the mainstream America. “I am encouraged by it,” he says. “They are not just Asian filmmakers, but black and Middle Eastern filmmakers, and as we see more and more, that really helps us better understand this country and humanity. Hopefully Threatening adds to that. “
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George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism