Jane Park, Contributing Photographer

Upon graduation, ecology major Lee Isaac Chung ’01 was set on attending medical school. 

This all changed when Chung took Michael Roemer’s class, Film as Art, during his senior year. The class opened Chung’s eyes to the very real possibility of pursuing film, Chung said. 

Twenty-two years later, Chung returned to campus to speak to a tightly packed group of Yale students at the Leitner House, in an event sponsored by Pierson College and the Yale Film Archive. He spoke about the production process of his first feature film, his upbringing in Arkansas and how his highly-acclaimed film, “Minari,” came to life. Later in the evening, Chung attended a screening of “Minari,” which was presented on 35mm film print — the only film print of it made. 

“It’s great to see a filmmaker, especially one that was so shaped by Yale, come back and talk about his time here,” said Joji Baratelli ’24, who facilitated the conversation. “In many ways it puts things into perspective: a career in film is a long and difficult journey, but also I think exciting for a student body looking out into the future and in the possible ways of being. He offers that very hope, I think, of a life in art as a possibility — and for students, I think that’s a really exciting thing to see.”

Time would fly by during Chung’s all-nighter editing sessions for Roemer’s class, more quickly than it did in his stop-watch timed work at the genetics lab, according to Chung. 

That was when, Chung said, he first considered a career as a filmmaker. 

“I’m sure you guys have felt this, where you just entered this flow and you just realize, time exists somewhere else and you’re just in this space of creative work,” Chung said. “I just thought to myself that year, what if I could live life like this? What if I could just enter into a life in which I do this?”  

Roemer’s influence, and his films, brought Chung back to Yale decades later. Chung reached out to the University for Roemer’s contact when the Yale Film Archive presented screenings of two of Roemer’s films last fall

When film archivist Brian Meacham sent Roemer’s information to Chung, Meacham told Chung of the film archive’s plan to make a 35mm print of “Minari.”

Meacham asked Chung if he would be interested in attending the screening, to which Chung enthusiastically agreed, said Meacham. Though it took an entire year, the event was organized smoothly, as Chung and a densely packed audience watched “Minari” on film on Friday night.  

“In the digital age, I still feel it’s important to create, when possible, a tangible, physical copy of a film like this, which will remain in Yale’s collection and be a resource for students, faculty, and the community for many years to come,” Meacham wrote in an email to the News. 

Chung started dreaming of leaving the east coast when his own older sister left Lincoln, Arkansas to attend Yale. From then on, Yale became his “escape,” Chung said. 

Upon his arrival, however, Chung felt as if he were a “fish out of water”. 

“I couldn’t place this into words until later in life,” Chung said. “That I felt maybe more of a culture shock here than I did in Arkansas, as a child of Korean immigrants [growing up] in a very rural place that was obviously very different from my parents’ culture. It was just the level of education, the lingo, the way that people from the coast would talk. All these different things that I just wasn’t used to.” 

Chung eventually revisited his Arkansas upbringing in what he intended to be his final script. With the birth of his daughter, Chung said he was considering stepping away from filmmaking and accepted a teaching position at University of Utah’s Asia campus in Korea. 

Before Chung left for Korea, he sat down to write one last script. In his writing process, Chung said he was greatly inspired by writer Willa Cather, who wrote stories about life on the Great Plains, and whom Chung could see parts of himself in. 

“There was a quote that she gave that always stood out to me,” Chung said. “She said that her life really began when she stopped admiring, and she started remembering. She stopped admiring all of these people who she thought she needed to emulate, and instead, she turned to her own experiences and she started to remember.”  

Chung spent the entire afternoon that day “just writing down memories,” he said. Among them, he remembered the dust rising from the carpet of his mobile home. As he organized and shifted around these memories on his document, Chung began to see “a story take shape.” 

While Chung remembered his memories from the perspective of the child, in recalling stories from this time, he was able to better understand his family, he said. In particular, he resonated with his father’s struggles, as Chung was now a father himself. 

“I felt like I had grown enough, I’d become a parent, and now I could see the perspective of everyone else in a better way,” Chung said. “In that film, when you watch it, it’s definitely based on a lot of life experiences, but there’s a bit of me in every single person in that film.”  

Calling “Minari” the “most personal film [he] ever made,” Chung recalled being “scared” to see his parents’ reactions to the film. Chung and his wife Valerie Chu ’01 organized a screening with Chu’s aunt and uncle because he knew “they wouldn’t flip out in front of other people,” Chung joked. 

To Chung’s surprise, his parents responded very positively and were “moved.” Afterward, Chung recalled how his parents told him that they could not fall asleep later that night, as “they were picturing the movie.” 

Chung and Chu met in their first year at Yale, at the first-year formal. After their marriage, Chung followed Chu to Rwanda, where she helped train counselors in Kigali. There, Chu asked Chung to “figure out something that [he] could do to help people.” 

He offered to teach classes on filmmaking, what he considered at the time — 2006 — to be a “low priority need.” To his surprise, many individuals signed up for his class and with a $30,000 budget, Chung and his students would create a film over a course of 11 days. Emerging as the final product of this class was Chung’s directorial debut, “Munyurangabo,” which told the tale of friendship in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide. 

“In retrospect, for me, when I look back on it, it was such a pure filmmaking process,” Chung said. “It was all about the creative energy of all of us, coming together and doing something together. We had no idea that this would get recognized the way that it did as well.” 

“Munyurangabo” was an official selection at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival and the winner of the grand prize at the 2007 American Film Institute Festival. It was the first narrative feature film in the Kinyarwanda language, and Chung said that he directed the entire film with somebody whispering and translating in his ear. 

When Baratelli asked about what is lost and gained in translation, Chung likened language to a form of exploration, even while translation may overlook the nuances of language at times. 

Through this project, Chung was able to appreciate the beauty of language, he said, a value that would eventually carry on to future works. “Minari,” for instance, was mostly written in Korean. 

 “When you make a movie, you just get to explore something in such a deep and profound way,” Chung said. “You go and live with people, you go into their homes, you learn their stories, you tell him you know that there’s something so beautiful in walking across those bridges. The art … itself becomes a way to explore things and to see the world and understand it a little bit more. And I tried to treat that with a lot of respect. I don’t feel like I’m entitled to that, but there’s some humility that has to go into that. And I think that’s the part with language.” 

When asked about future projects and the films he hoped to make, Chung said that he wanted to make “timeless” pieces that will “hold up in years to come.” As he glanced over at his daughter, who was fidgeting with the bookcase in the Leitner Room, Chung also said that he made ‘Minari’ in hopes that she will see the film when she was older. 

Chung acknowledged the significance of his work for the audience of Koreans and diasporic Korean-Americans. While Chung accepted the “communal aspect” of his films, he said that he tried not to feel “burdened” by it.  

“From there, I do feel some responsibility [as a Korean-American director],” said Chung. “I understand my work has a communal aspect to it, in terms of how it’s received … but I try not to either oppose it or run to it too much,” he said. “I still try to operate with some freedom. You can’t be doing work that is meant to simply hold up a cause or anything like that. There’s got to be some honesty in it.”

Chung’s next directorial project, “Twisters,” is a sequel to Jant de Bon’s 1966 disaster film “Twister,” and is slated to be released in July 2024.