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From WNYC in Philadelphia, I'm Terry Gross with Fresh Air. Today, Lee Isaac Chang, the writer and director of the semiautobiographical movie Minardi with just won the Golden Globe for best foreign language film. Our critic John Powers described it as brimming with humor, humanity and hope set in the 1980s. It's about a family of South Korean immigrants that relocates from California to rural Arkansas. The father wants to be a farmer. The mother yearns to return to California and the kids don't have much of a choice.
Menary also won the top jury prize and audience prize at last year's Sundance Film Festival. Later, Maureen Corrigan reviews Kazuo Ishiguro s new novel, Klara and the Son. Maureen says it's one of the most affecting and profound novels Ishiguro has written. Last Sunday, the Golden Globe for best foreign language film went to Minardi, which was written and directed by our guest, Lee Isaach Chung. Minardi is in select theaters and available on demand. Lee Isaach Chang spoke with Fresh Air guest interviewer Arun Venugopal, who's a host and senior producer at WNYC in New York.
The film Minardi tells the story of Jacob Yeay, a man who relocates his family of four from California to rural Arkansas in the 1980s so he can pursue his dream of being a farmer. He and his wife, Monica, are Korean immigrants and their marriage is unraveling. At times, his attempt to start a farm seems like an act of love or intense passion and at others, utterly quixotic and self-destructive. And it's unclear whether he'll be able to hold his family together in the face of personal struggles, dwindling savings and cultural isolation.
He is an indie film and arrives in a wave of considerable excitement as well as controversy. The movie premiere to great acclaim at Sundance in January of twenty twenty, but was also blocked from competing for the Best Picture Award at the Golden Globes because it's primarily in Korean rather than English. So it had to compete as a foreign language film, although it was financed and distributed by American companies. And the story is very much American. Its director. Our guest, Lee Isaach Chang, is also American Chang's first film When Urunga book came out in 2007 and was set in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide.
In addition to directing Menary, he also wrote the screenplay, which is loosely based on his own life, the Isaac Chang. Welcome to Fresh Air.
Thanks so much, Arun. I'm just so impressed with how well you pronounce Minardi and when you're done. Gobo Excellent score.
I got some points for the for the pronouncers, at least so far.
I appreciate that your family is Korean and yourself grew up in rural Arkansas. What prompted you to start writing the screenplay?
You know, honestly, I, I kind of had this idea that I would make a film about this someday in my life. And I had that thought early on when I was going to film school, but I just never felt ready for it. And it wasn't until about twenty eighteen I had signed on to start teaching somewhere in Korea and I figured I only have a few months before that job begins in which I could write something and have maybe one last go at writing a screenplay.
And that naturally led me to the idea of picking up this story of what it was like when we moved to that farm in Arkansas. And just looking at the timeline of it, like my dad was basically the same age that I am now when he did that. And my daughter is the same age that I was when we moved to the farm. So something about that timing seemed just right, that I could understand his perspective a little better and understand my daughter's perspective or see the world a little bit more through her eyes.
This started out as a story you wanted to tell your daughter, didn't it?
It did. I took some time off after I made my previous feature film, Abigail Harm, and I was just trying to reassess what I wanted to do with my next film. And my daughter was born in that time and I just felt an increasing amount of pressure after she was born that I wanted to do something that I'd be proud of, like proud of leaving her and proud of her watching in the future. And yeah, somehow this idea made me feel like if I can tell this story right, then it's something that she could see and understand her own history in a way.
So once you establish that this is something you want to do, make something for your daughter, how do you set out on this path that arrived at this particular film? I was I was on this weird, wild goose chase where I thought I might try to adapt a Willa Cather book, and if you don't know Willa Cather, she she was an author in the early nineteen hundreds. And for a while she wrote these books about New York High Society.
And I think she didn't feel very fulfilled about that. And then at one point in her life, somebody recommended to her that she should write a book about her own upbringing in Nebraska because she she grew up kind of in the Great Plains and the resulting books ended up being so personal and so beautiful about her own experiences growing up in Nebraska that she said later in life that her life really began when she stopped admiring. So she stopped admiring all these authors and tried to emulate them.
And instead she started to remember I was so inspired by that quote that I just sat down in the library, the local library here, and I started to write down about 80 memories. I didn't set out to just write 80, but but that's how many just flowed out of me in one session. And I spent the whole afternoon just writing memory after memory. One memory would lead to another. And these were a little bit visual memories, little details that I remember from the past.
And once I had this set of memories, I realized that there was an arc of a story there, this family showing up in the middle of nowhere, really, with the dad not having told anyone in the family that he was going to buy this farmland. And this is something that came from real life and ultimately a patch of Minardi, this Korean plant that the grandmother plants that my grandmother planted, that ended up being the only thing that really thrived on that farm.
So once I had those two polls in mind of where the story starts and where the story ends, I just start to shape all the memories together into a narrative.
The most compelling characters in my mind is the grandmother played by UNILAG Young. And, you know, she's this really amazing, vivacious character. She's kind of crass and she's just this delightful person. She arrives from Korea, I guess, you know, part, you know, maybe midway or not even that far into the film. She writes in the farm. She kind of helps the family sort of, I guess, get by in narrative terms. What purpose does she serve?
I guess in narrative terms, for me, she's someone who really comes and throws into disarray all the all the different concerns that the family has, and she's the one who arrives and begins to introduce a new way of looking at things. And that's kind of what I wanted for her. She's not a an intellectual person and she's not someone who is very religious about things or ideological. And to me, I've always been drawn to characters like this in literature and in movies, kind of the fool in a way.
I don't want to say that she's a fool, but we think of this person as being very crass and not really having much wisdom in some sense. But really, they are the ones who figured life out. And there's an author I love, Flannery O'Connor, and she she often has these moments of real grace and wisdom that erupt out of characters who you just don't expect would bring that sort of thing. So that's kind of the purpose I wanted her to have in this film.
And in many ways, the film or the themes of the film kind of emerged from her relationship with her grandson, this little boy played by Alan Kim, who is kind of thrown off and at some times just really annoyed by her. I mean, she she uses foul language. She calls, you know, she says like, oh, you little bastards. And she has a scent.
I guess you could say that he finds Off-putting and he says things about that, which smells like Korea grown up would be really offensive. But in some ways, it's sort of like he serves like the end of the film by saying these kinds of things that seem basically racist but are coming from a kid's mouth. And was that also drawing from stuff you've seen personally or developed during the process of writing the script?
Oh, yeah, definitely. I mean, she she's also bringing a sense of history to the family is the way I feel. I mean, this family is trying to move into the future, but she really carries this weight of the past in in a way that's, I guess, counterintuitive. But she's she's bringing the old country in a way. And that kind of comes from personal life. Like my sister and I, we were too happy go lucky kids in Arkansas.
And my mom had to start working as a chicken sexer for financial reasons. And we couldn't just keep going to the workplace with them. We need somebody to watch us. So my parents brought my grandmother over from Korea and at first she was kind of a shock to our senses. She just didn't fit in with our conceptions of what a grandmother should be and also our conception of what what even Korean culture was. After everything my parents were teaching us about Korean culture, about being respectful and all these things, you know, here came my grandmother, who is very crass and wanted to teach us how to gamble.
And, you know, there was just something about that relationship that was both very unsettling for me as a kid, but also what ended up proving to be just what I needed to survive. I always look back on those years and my childhood, and I think she brought so much joy and happiness to our lives. And that's what I hope she does in this film. Yeah, she's really vibrant character, but as is kind of mentioned offhandedly by Monica, the wife, the grandmother lost her husband, Monica's father, during the war, the Korean War.
And this reminded me of something in her memoir, Minor Feelings that are Korean American writer Kathy Pak. Hong recounts a scene from her first week in college at Oberlin when her dad meets her roommate's dad, who asks where they're from. And Tom's dad replies, South Korea. The roommate's dad said, Oh, I fought in the Korean War. And Hank's father smiles and he says nothing. And this upsets Hong, whose first year college student. She's really embarrassed.
She gets angry at her dad later and calls him rude for not picking up the thread of this conversation. And he starts, you know, should I thank your roommate's father for that war? Is that what you wanted? And by and by, we learned how the family story has been shaped by the war, by the by all the violence, that the indignities at the hands of American soldiers. And it really made me think watching your film as well.
You know, there is so much history and pain buried right beneath the surface of these stories, isn't there? And just so much that lies unspoken in these families. Yeah.
You know, there was a scene that we had in this film, one point where we kind of find out that the reason Jacob is so obsessed with getting land is because he had lost some land during the Korean War. And that was a thread we had going through the film at some point that I just felt like that that wasn't necessary for the story because it comes out in other ways. But, yeah, that history is is really complex. And I wouldn't want to go all the way and say, you know, Americans committed atrocities and all those things.
It's a lot more complex than that. For instance, my dad is is hoping to arrange a screening in Colorado for a Korean War vet just because he wants to kind of support that community. But when I look back now as an adult, I'm able to see my mom and grandmother in a different way that I didn't understand as a kid. You know, my my mom grew up without a father because he died in the Korean War. And my grandmother, her life was completely upended because of that.
She was 20 years old. Her husband died and she had a young daughter. She had to figure out how to raise her. And she ended up moving with my mom out to Inchon, which is on the coast, which is ironically where I ended up living and teaching. And I would see the areas in which my grandmother, mother lived. My grandmother would go out into the mudflats there and start gathering shellfish just so that the family could survive.
And her whole life was almost defined by that that war and that tragedy. The fact that she came over to the U.S. to help my mom it's my mom was her only child, and my grandmother sold all of her possessions in Korea. She sold this store that she was running with another Korean War widow and came over to the U.S. and kind of lived a life of anonymity. She never learned the language. She suffered a stroke. She passed away.
And and she just kind of gave her life over to helping us not face that sort of suffering. Excuse me with this film, one of the. Things that I'm sorry and I don't want to. Be completely overwhelmed here. Yeah, now it's OK, take a second here. I mean, you know, one thing that this film has clearly touched on. Claire, this film is has affected a lot of people and I mean, I suppose it brings out a lot, doesn't it?
Yeah, well, you're seeing me get you're hearing me get emotional now, you can you can imagine what I was like on set on some days filming some of the scenes, is that right? Yeah, it was tough. I guess. I just hope that this film would somehow. Capture who she was. You know, someone somewhere who is invisible, I would hope that she would be seen, if that makes sense. I think this has been not just for viewers who are, you know, a lot of people watch this film and it really breaks them up.
It's not just. You know, the audience is also clearly the people who were part of the some, not just you, but the cast members who I think have gotten often very emotional trying to articulate the power of this film and the process. So you've been seeing the people you've been working with for for a long time. I guess you're very choked up about these themes. I'm just kind of wondering what is it that you think really kind of affects them so deeply about this process and about this film?
I can tell you what I don't think it is, and maybe I'll go into what I think it might be. I don't think it's about identity. I don't think it's about us, you know, as Asian-Americans expressing who we are and recognizing that. But I think it's really about the relationships that we have in our own personal stories, like that story of immigration. What often gets. Overlooked in that story is the fact that a lot of that is happening due to the feeling of love, that that feeling of of a desire to sacrifice for for each other and immigration stories or family stories, you know, honestly, I've seen people who aren't Korean immigrants work on this film and also feel choked up and feel emotional about it because they remember their own families.
Any time there's a story about that sort of sacrifice, that sort of desire to to help one another and to understand each other, I've been kind of feeling like that's been what's been driving our emotional responses. And it's obviously an emotional thing for me. I honestly have it feel like I'm getting tired of trying to hold it together sometimes because. Making a film is a difficult thing and even trying to talk about the film in interviews and all those things, it's been difficult for me because this one just hit so close to home and at the same time, like, I want to I want to be able to communicate clearly.
I want to be able to direct clearly and lead a crew and actors in a very clear way. And that's been the unique challenge of this film, to try to be measured and to be balanced and at the same time to to let it be personal.
One thing that that really, I think affected people who've seen the film was when she arrives, the grandmother, she kind of hands over these bags of food and they tried anchovies and red chili powder to her daughter, who just, you know, just burst into tears at just the visceral impact of, like, getting this thing, which she has not taste it or smell it in so long. Did you expect people to, I guess, to feel so strongly about something which is almost kind of like a little quick moment at the film like that?
I didn't when I was writing that scene, I wrote it that the grandmother brings anchovies and pepper flakes. And as I was writing, the the mother character began to cry. And I thought it was funny that she's crying about anchovies and that's how the line kind of came in. You know, you're crying over anchovies. And I just found it to be a funny moment. That was surprising. It didn't happen in my real life. But it's just something that came about in the writing and it felt so true and so human and something that expresses a lot of where Minako, the mother, is emotionally, how she's been feeling, everything that's been pent up inside of her, she's missing home.
So I left it in there. I didn't know if anybody would really connect to it, but I've been surprised that lots of people have been crying about the end of his joining in with her. And that's been a real joy because it's not just the Koreans or the the kids of immigrants, but it seems like everybody kind of understands that feeling. Food is food is powerful, you know, that really hits so close to home for all of us.
So tell us about the main character of Jacob. Who is he to you? Uh, to me, he's really a complex character, someone who is quite heroic in his motivations and in his struggles. But he's also very conflicted inside and there's no clear heroism to what he's doing as well. I love characters like that. I think I think often the films I've seen of people trying to make it in the West, they tend to. But they don't always have that kind of complexity.
I would say so with with him, I was wanting to really explore that. And that comes from a very personal place as well. I don't want to say that Jacob is my father because, you know, I really fictionalize him. And I think what my dad did in my life, I just consider him a real hero. But a lot of what's in Jacob is actually me, myself, me wrestling with my own tendencies and problems and problematic ways of viewing the world.
And at the same time, I'm trying to give that character some grace and try not to judge that character. We're listening to the interview.
Our guest, interviewer Arun Venugopal, recorded with Lee Isaac Chang, the writer and director of the new semiautobiographical film Menary. It's playing in select theaters and is available on demand. We'll hear more of their interview after a break. And Maureen Corrigan will review Kazuo Ishiguro, his new novel, which Maureen says is a masterpiece. I'm Terry Gross and this is Fresh Air.
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This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross. Back with more of our interview with Lee Isaac Chang, the writer and director of the new film Minardi. It just won the Golden Globe for best foreign language film. It also won the top jury prize and top audience prize at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. It's about a Korean American family that moves to rural Arkansas because the father, played by Steven Yeun, dreams of being a farmer. The mother wonders if they'll have enough money to live as they and their two children try to adjust to living in a trailer home on a plot of land.
Far from everything, the mother's mother moved from South Korea to try to help out with the children.
While the parents marriage seems to be falling apart, MUNITY is loosely based on Lee Isaac Chang's own experiences. Growing up, he started writing the screenplay by making a list of every memory he could think of from his childhood. Let's go back to the interview he recorded with Fresh Air guest interviewer Arun Venugopal.
What were some of the memories on that first list that you came up with on that that first list that I made, it ranged from very, very broad memories to also very detailed ones, for instance. I remembered that my grandmother, when she came from Korea, she brought all this herbal medicine and just how much that was the source of my first frustration over my grandmother and her arrival, the fact that she brought this terrible brown juice to me. So I had memories like that.
I had memories of just even something simple, like the lunch pail that my mom and dad would carry that lunch pail. I made sure that we would find the exact brand, the exact style for this film. And the reason why it stood out to me was that that lunchpail is something that they would take food with them to the workplace. And then sometimes we would come back home with baby chickens that were saved from destruction in that lunchpail pail. I kind of had a scene where the kids have brought these chickens back in the lunch pail.
We ended up cutting that four time. You just end up seeing with them with the chickens at home. But, you know, memories like that stood out to me as well.
At first, you hesitated about telling your family about the movie. Why? Yeah, that's right.
I was incredibly nervous about then finding out what I'm doing there, private people. And I felt like I might be doing an injustice in some ways by writing a story about them and trying to represent their perspectives and stuff without letting them write it, not giving them the agency to write it. But but I just felt this real need to tell this story. So I was working on it. I figured, I'll tell them one day if this film gets made, I'll tell them.
But for now, I'm just personally I need to write this script. So I wrote it and I didn't tell them anything. Every now and then, I would talk to my mom and kind of ask her some probing questions like, you know, why did grandma bring money from Korea? How did she get that money? You know, I would ask all these little details and my mom would say, you're really taking an interest in your past. And I think they're getting suspicious.
And so once we got financing to make this film, I just told my parents, it looks like I can make another film. I got financing. They were more happy about that. They didn't care what the film's about. They're just glad that I'm working. I'm going to do something right.
You can pay the bills.
And they found out that the actress is on board and she is their favorite actor. She's a big deal, isn't she? She's a huge deal. And she was always in our homes, you know, when we were growing up. She's in every favorite television show. So my mom just thought you finally made it. This is great. And then she asked, so what is she playing? And I said, well, she's this grandmother. And and then I thought, and there there's a mom and a dad and there are two kids and yeah, they live in a trailer home.
I didn't tell them that this is our family's story, but obviously my mom is starting to piece things together. And I think it made my parents even more nervous that I was not coming completely clean to them, that I would not tell them. This is our story. It's the cover up is a cover up. So they were super concerned until Thanksgiving of twenty nineteen. We had finished the cut and I just decided I have to get this out of the way and finally show them.
And I was a nervous wreck. I had no idea what they would think. They came from Colorado to California and we watched the film together and slowly I just started to see my mom starting to weep, my my sister, my dad. And it just felt like it was such a cathartic experience for all of us. It was it was really special, really incredible. And my sister, she still makes fun of me. She said that the way that I was acting, it was like I committed a crime, the fact that I wasn't telling them what this film was.
So they really were expecting a terrible, terrible film about our family. Everyone was super relieved after they watched the film. Did they ever tell you why they cried? Um, we've we've kind of talked around it and and and so I try to piece things together, but everybody has a different reason. I feel like my mother, she was telling me that she was unable she never was able to see my grandmother in her dreams. She said that she was always jealous of me because I would always see my grandma in my dreams.
And she said, finally, after watching this film, she could see my grandma in her dreams. Wow. That was so special. And for my sister, she said that she had just blocked out so much from that time because she found it to be pretty difficult. But she loved seeing it in beauty, in the beauty of what we had in that time. While you're shooting the film, your dad wanted to actually visit the set and you said no, didn't you?
I did, yeah. And I felt so bad about that because he genuinely wanted to come and help. And I was so stressed already on set. We had like twenty five days and there's like no room for error. I just felt like every day was a real battle. And I just thought if I had my dad there, it would be another concern that I would have of making sure that he feels all right and that I'm not doing anything that's going to dishonor him and, you know, all of these different, different worries that I knew I would have.
So I just said, please, no, just let me finish this and I'll show you later. And that was tough because I felt like that kind of hurt his feelings a bit. He didn't say that it did. But I also knew that, you know, he's a fan of Union and and wanted to see me working with her and just wanted to be in that environment. And we were filming very close to where our actual farm is in Arkansas.
So there's no excuse for me not to invite him to come. And he actually supplied the Minardi for us. Oh, wow, the seeds that turn into these plants growing on the water, the banks of this stream, exactly in a symbolic way. I mean, my dad was basically being my grandma used being the one showing love and sacrificing and doing hard work for me on this film. And, you know, I didn't let him come on the set.
And he totally understands now. I think he understands how stressful that entire experience was now. From the beginning, is this the title that you chose for the screenplay and and for the film?
It was when I was doing that exercise of writing down all the memories. The last thing that I came to was that little patch of Minardi that my grandmother and I would go to, that my grandmother would attend and I would throw rocks at snakes. And that's kind of how the snakes started coming into the story. And once I had that memory, it just dawned on me that this is what the name of the film is going to have to be.
And I thought, I'm not going to I'm not going to translate to English. I'm just going to let it be what it is. And if it's ever made, then I guess people will have to learn how to how to say the word if they want to see it.
And yeah, I just thought there's something so poetic about the plant as well. It's it's a hardy plant. It kind of grows in places where you can't grow anything else. It can take root in very poor soil conditions. And what it ends up doing is actually revitalizes the soil and it cleans up the water. It has a purifying effect. And so I thought there's a poetic resonance there that this plant speaks to.
We're listening to the interview. Our guest, interviewer Arun Venugopal, recorded with Lee Isaac Chung, the writer and director of the new film Minardi, which just won the Golden Globe for best foreign language film. It's in select theaters and available on demand. We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is Fresh Air.
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When the survivors of a mass shooting at a newspaper went back to work, everything was different, even email. What if someone's sending us more death threats? Or what if somebody sends me a death threat and I don't see it and then somebody comes and kills all my friends and it's my fault because I didn't read the email. That's this week on the Capital Gazette series from NPR's Embedded.
Let's get back to the interview. Our guest, interviewer Arun Venugopal, recorded with Lee Isaac Chung, the writer and director of the new semiautobiographical film Menary. It just won the Golden Globe for best foreign language film. You talked about your dad really wanting to pick up and move to to America when he was younger. What shaped his idea of this country when he was growing up?
He was living in Seoul. He's from the countryside. And he ended up living in Seoul. And he was working as a sock factory manager. And, you know, those those settings are not that great for work. But what he would do is he would save up money. He'd go to the dollar theaters in this area called Chong. No, it's kind of like the cinema center of Korea. And he would go to the cheapest movie houses where these film prints that have played and all the expensive theaters would finally end up and do their last runs.
And he told me every film he saw, it looked like it was raining because the film print was so scratched up. So he thought America was always rainy. I think he's joking about it. But but he'd watch those films and he loved films like Giant Big Country, East of Eden, Ben-Hur. He felt like if if there is a place where movies like this can come from and, you know, the land you see in those films, it just seems so expansive, full of opportunity.
He wanted to go there so pretty early on, he had decided he's going to make a way to go to America one day. And after he married my mom, that's what he set out to do. And my mom stayed in Korea for a couple of years as my dad moved to America on his own and really tried to find a living. And he ended up in that job of chicken sexing. And that's what brought my mom and sister over and shortly after I was born and chicken sexing, as you explain in the film.
But I suppose for anybody who's not familiar with the term, is basically trying to determine what whether a check is male or female. And if it's female, you keep it right. Yeah, that's right, sometimes you keep the males in some situations, but a lot of times the males have no use and that was kind of an idea that stuck with me when I was a kid. I remember going to work with my parents and hearing that the males have no use and so they're thrown out.
And you kind of see that creeping up in the film in some of the dialogue. But it's a hard job. It's very it's done in very dusty conditions. It's loud. Baby chickens are really loud and chicken sexers will will sit there for many hours going through thousands of baby chickens. And they're they're able to separate male and female with about ninety nine percent accuracy. And it's not as easy as you would think. Chickens don't have like a clear distinction in their genitals.
It's like you're just recognizing patterns and ultimately going on intuition. And so it takes many months for chicken sexers to learn how to decipher the differences.
Did your dad ever tell you how he how he could tell the male chicks from the female ones?
Yeah, I remember one day my sister and I, we went to the workplace and he was showing us different cloaca or events of these chickens and trying to show us, you know, this pattern is shiny or this has so many bumps. And ultimately, he could not tell us why it's male or female. He just would say, I just know. And that that just shows me now that what he had trained was intuition. There was this writer, the psychologist who ended up writing about chicken sexing how it's one of those few jobs that are so rooted in intuition that it's it's a mystery that the brain can actually work in that way, that it can't describe how it works.
But people just know after they've been trained, huh? Yeah.
What's really interesting is that your first film is is you shot it in Rwanda, didn't you?
I did, yeah. I was I was drawn to that idea of making films in other places. That particular one I didn't really like look at a map and point to Rwanda randomly. My wife was doing some volunteer work over there. She's a therapist and she was training counselors. And she she wanted me to go with her one summer. And she asked me to figure out something that I might do while I'm there. It was honestly, it started as a class project.
We were just wanting to teach filmmaking and make a film for local audiences.
And the film that came out of that was called Manute Bol. Is that the correct pronunciation? That's correct, yeah. And it's set in. Rwanda depicts the friendship between two boys in the aftermath of the Rwanda genocide. Roger Ebert called it a masterpiece called Your Film A Masterpiece, and as a kid, grew up in the US in rural Arkansas. What drew you to the Rwanda genocide?
Of course, the themes that I saw happening in Rwanda, I felt like there was a lot of proximity to South Korea as I was researching and thinking about the country.
What do you mean by that? I almost felt like there is some element of South Korea and North Korea playing itself out again, and you know that, that the genocide, there's a lot that comes from external categorizations, the history. If you look at the history of Hutu versus Tutsi, I mean, that distinction was kind of put there by colonial powers. Yeah. Early nineteen hundred. So I thought that was that was also something that I kind of felt like we as Koreans relate to, like the way in which Korea was almost a place where a lot of these geopolitical events were were just being staged in some way.
And ultimately it's about families being torn apart and families who are losing each other. And that element of it really spoke to me. So it's honestly one of my favorite things that I ever did was going over there and teaching and making that film together with people. And your relationship with Rwanda continues, I guess, in your work mentoring young Rwandan filmmakers. What do you talk to them about as far as handling the personal and their work when it comes to the things that I do talk with them about?
I try to. I just want them to have agency really to tell their own stories. I don't want them to fall into the. The traps of having to speak to the West, if that makes sense to to put their focus on the West and figure out how you know. Will my project get financed if I speak to if I center it towards a Western audience, that sort of thing? I just want them to be true. Basically, I want them to be true to their own experiences and to tell a story on their own terms the way that they want to tell a story.
And it's it's pretty tricky. A lot of a lot of filmmakers in countries like Rwanda, funding and financing comes from Western sources. So there are expectations that I think these sources often put on these filmmakers that you have to tell a story in this way or, you know, it's an interesting story. If you talk about these certain issues, I think there's this pressure there that that maybe we don't we don't realize in the West that we often put on storytellers in other countries to appease us as an audience and kind of want people to feel free from that.
Lee Isaac Chan, thanks for joining us. Thank you. I mean, this is a great conversation. Lee Isaac Chang's new film, Minardi, is now in select theaters and is available on demand on all digital platforms. He spoke with Fresh Air guest interviewer Arun Venugopal, who's a host and senior reporter at WNYC in New York.
After we take a short break, Maureen Corrigan will review Kazuo Ishiguro new novel, Klara and the Son. Maureen says it's one of the most affecting and profound novels Ishiguro has written.
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Novelist Kazuo Ishiguro won the Nobel Prize in literature in 2017 for his novels of, quote, great emotional force that uncover the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world. Book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review of Ishiguro new novel, Klara and the Sun.
This is unbearable. I wrote that one sentence review to myself about halfway through reading Klara and the Son, Kazuo Ishiguro has just published eighth novel. Lest you think that doesn't sound like much of an enticement, I know that I've probably written something like that sentence about every Ishiguro novel I've read. He is the master of slowly deepening our awareness of human failing fragility and the inevitability of death.
All that even as he deepens our awareness of what temporary magic it is to be alive in the first place. Like a medieval pilgrim walking a cathedral labyrinth and meditation, Ishiguro keeps pacing his way through these big existential themes in his fiction. Clara and The Sun is yet another return pilgrimage, and it's one of the most affecting and profound novels Ishiguro has written. The story is set in a United States of the Near Future, a place riven by tribal loyalties and fascist political movements.
Technology has rendered many people post employed and created a blunt caste system where the so-called lifted are on top. That's the wide focus social backdrop of this novel. But most of the time we're seeing things through the narrow view of Clara, our first person. NARRATOR When we meet her, Clara is on display in a department store window. She's an RF or artificial friend. To call her a robot diminishes her because Clara, as the store manager says in a sales pitch, has an appetite for observing and learning and has the most sophisticated understanding of any A.F. in the store.
The AFEs have been designed as companions for the children of this brave new world, who for some reason don't go out much. One day, a pale, thin teenager named Jose comes into the store with her mother, a woman who Clara notices carries an angry exhaustion in her eyes. We soon learned the mother's expression is connected to a mysterious illness that's weakening Jose, immediately drawn to Clara, Jose chooses her to be her best friend, and Clara is packed up and sent to Joseph's house.
Loneliness, of course, is one of the signature emotions that Ishi Guru's novels fathom. And in her new position, Clara has many opportunities to observe the strategies that humans devised to fight off loneliness and conceal vulnerability. Here, she describes a contrived gathering of teenagers called an interaction at Josie's house. Clara is at first puzzled by the meanness of the kids, including, uncharacteristically, Jose, then slowly. Clara grasps that they fear loneliness and that's why they behave as they do.
I'd begun to understand also that people often felt the need to prepare a side of themselves to display to passers by as they might in a store window. And that's such a display needn't be taken so seriously once the moment had passed. Clara's voice, her sensibility, if you can say that of an artificial friend, is pure and devoted a little like a service dog.
The question of whether Clara indeed has a sensibility is a crucial one here, as it was initially Gurus 2005 novel Never Let Me Go, where the young female narrator is a clone. Clara is such a compelling presence that I think most readers of this novel will say, yes, she's a sentient being. But what does our intense connection to an artificial friend do to the belief that, as one character puts it, there's something unreachable inside each of us human beings, something that's unique and won't transfer?
Without question, Clara certainly seems capable of loving in the unbearable sections of this novel I referenced earlier, Josie grows weaker and Clara, who's herself solar powered, beseeches the kindly sun for special nourishment for Jose and then bravely sets out to make an offering to the sun. Clara's misperception of the sun as a caring deity calls to question our own limited human understanding of, well, everything like Clara, who sees the world through grids that sometimes go haywire. We humans only see through a glass darkly.
But great artists like Ishiguro are distinguished by their more expansive vision. I know that's something of an old fashioned conceit, as is the word masterpiece. Nevertheless, I'll go for broke and call Clara and The Sun a masterpiece that will make you think about life, mortality, the saving grace of love. In short, the all of it. Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed Clara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro tomorrow on Fresh Air. Dexter Filkins, one of the greatest war reporters of our time, talks with us about Afghanistan, which he returned to in January.
Trump made a deal with the Taliban to withdraw all American troops by May 1st. And now President Biden is faced with some difficult decisions. The U.S. spent more than 130 billion dollars rebuilding the country. Will the prospect of American withdrawal create a breakthrough or a collapse? That's the question Filkins asks in his new article in The New Yorker. I hope you'll join us.
Fresh Air's executive producer is Danny Miller, our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Teresa Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Challoner, Seth Kelly and Kyla Latimore.
Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Esper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show.
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