It’s Lee Isaac Chung Week at Looking Closer!

This week, I’m celebrating the theatrical and streaming release of the beautiful new film Minari in honor of filmmaker Lee Isaac Chung. I ranked Minari in second-place for my favorite films of 2020 last week, joining a large chorus of critics raving about the film. And the movie world is now taking notice of Lee Isaac Chung as if he’s a startling new talent.

But he isn’t! Roger Ebert was raving about him way back in 2009 when his film Munyurangabo impressed critics at festivals. I wrote about the film for two different magazines and for this website. (I’ll share those links later this week.)

I’ve had the privilege of knowing Isaac (that’s what his friends call him) for about a decade, because to meet the guy is to befriend him. He is so humble, gracious, and generous with his ideas and his time. He’s a good listener, too.

To begin this week of flashbacks and reviews, I’ll highlight a few words I said about Isaac and his film Munyurangabo back in 2010 when I was interviewed by Nick Olson for Liberty University’s arts journal The Lamp (a journal edited by Karen Swallow Prior).

Here’s an excerpt from that conversation:

. . . . . . .

Nick Olson:

Christians often cry for more ‘Christian films’ like Passion of the Christ or The Lord of the Rings or The Chronicles of Narnia, but seem to automatically condemn and dismiss films that are not overtly Christian in this way. Is there such a thing as a “Christian film?

My Long-Winded, Rambling Response:

God made all of us in his image, which means we all have some kind of God-given creativity. What’s more, we all have eternity written in our hearts. That means that truth, beauty, excellence — all of the stuff that reflects God’s glory — can come shining through the work of any artistic human being, believer or unbeliever.

I’ve been drawn closer to God by the truth and beauty in more movies made by unbelievers than ones made by Christians. And most of the movies made by professing Christians are usually more focused on preaching a lesson, or advertising Christianity, than they are at giving us an imaginative experience worth talking about.

I don’t like using ‘Christian’ as an adjective. Should I go looking for a Christian surgeon, or a good surgeon? Should I look for a Christian mechanic, or an expert mechanic? Should we eat Christian meals, or nutritious meals? Should we drive Christian cars, or cars that are made well? Good work honors God, whether the worker knows it or not.

The truth is, there were several movies released in the last few years that came from Christian filmmakers. They were beautiful, thought-provoking films. But they were overlooked by Christian audiences. Why? Were they poorly made? No, they won international awards. Did they cover up the issues of faith? Not at all. One – Seraphine – dealt with faith directly, and it won more awards in France than any other movie this year. Another – Ostrov (The Island) – was given public blessings by priests and bishops who would stand in prayer outside the theaters when the film opened in Moscow. Another – Munyurangabo – had an American director, Lee Isaac Chung, who spoke very openly in interviews about his faith, and about how he made the movie with the help of a Youth With a Mission team in Africa. Roger Ebert called that one ‘a masterpiece.’ But I’ll bet most Christians didn’t give it a second glance in the video store.

So, why did most Christians ignore these films? Perhaps it was because the movies did not provide simplistic ‘messages’ like you might get in a children’s Sunday school class. Perhaps it was because they weren’t advertised as ‘Christian.’ Or perhaps it was because American Christians can be as lazy as most other Americans, bothered by anything foreign or subtitled. Perhaps it was because Christians are, like most audiences, bothered by unattractive characters — and believe me, these movies did not focus on glamorous celebrities.

So when many Christians start complaining that there aren’t any good movies out there that reflect the love and glory of God, they just don’t know what they’re talking about. They just show how little effort they’ve put into the search for meaningful art.